by Donal Foreman
Filmmaker Magazine, 2012 SUMMER
John Cassavetes once described the role of the director as essentially indirect: “I don’t direct the film. I set up an atmosphere and the atmosphere directs.”
Atmosphere and budget may seem like two very different issues, one ephemeral and elusive, the other pragmatic and denumerable, but in practice they are intimately linked. Decisions regarding the selection and number of cast, crew and locations; the scheduled duration and pace of the shoot; the resources at its disposal—each choice is at least partially determined by financial limitations, and each, in turn, affects the atmosphere of a production and the qualities of the film that results. On top of this, the relationships between participants—their shared histories and experience, their temperament and style of communication, their feelings about the project—shape this atmosphere as well. If Cassavetes is right in saying that the director’s role (and, really, the producer’s too) is to evoke this atmosphere, perhaps what that really means is creatively balancing these economic and relational factors so that collegial and personal bonds compensate for what lack of funds would otherwise prohibit—and, in some cases, what even a surplus of funds could not provide.
The motivation for this article was to explore the diverse ways in which independent filmmakers tackle these negotiations in the day-to-day production of a film. To that end, Filmmaker visited the sets of three films recently shooting in New York City, ranging from a near-zero budget production to something in the six-figure range. But while the reference to Cassavetes may have you thinking of wild spontaneity and spur-of-the-moment digressions, what each shoot illustrated in distinct ways was how much the pre-production process determines a shoot’s atmosphere and the degree to which it can adapt to changes day-to-day. Because two of these shoots had typically nerve-wrackingly tight schedules, thorough pre-production work was a must. But even our third filmmaker, the prolific James Fotopoulos, who works in a more experimental and less time-sensitive manner, relies on intensive preparation too. In talking to the filmmakers behind each project, it became clear that the decisions on how to structure a production are not purely dictated by necessity but are ones of filmmaking philosophy. They frame a continuing dialogue between limitation and aspiration, asking the fundamental questions, “What kind of film do you want to make, and how do you want to make it?”
It’s impossible to talk about the making of a James Fotopoulos movie without considering the larger body of work of which it is part: that is, the more than 100 films of varying lengths he has directed since beginning as a teenage filmmaker in 1993. Fotopoulos claims to have been effectively in production continuously since then, building a body of work that has ranged from genre-based 16mm features to mixed-media gallery installations incorporating video, drawings and sculpture. His approach is a strange mix of patience and economy. An incredibly fast shooter and very sure of his choices, he rarely shoots more than one or two takes, and he has literally shot features in less than a day. However, this efficiency is bolstered by exhaustive preparation—he scripts and storyboards meticulously—and an extensive slate of works in progress that allows projects to develop and evolve over a long period of time. Nautilus, the production we visited, illustrates this. Originally planned in 2001 as the first part of a trilogy dealing with American history, its conception grew exponentially over the next few years: a 1,000-page script was written and a 14-hour soundtrack produced that was to form the basis of the film on which images would be gradually added. Over the years, Fotopoulos made several attempts to shoot the visual components of the film but was never satisfied with the results. Recently, a key piece of casting kick-started the project. Now with a projected length of just 90 minutes (and only a few minutes of the original 14-hour soundtrack to be incorporated), Nautilus will most closely resemble his 2011 experimental feature Alice in Wonderland, in which a close-up of a mesmerized actress is slowed down to an almost standstill amidst a collision of fragmented text, narration, sculptures, drawings and nightmarish soundscapes, suggesting an experience of psychological crisis in which narratives accumulate and disperse like flotsam and jetsam. The director says the production’s only direct costs will be the fabrication of some sculptural models, and those won’t even hit four figures.
The origins of Michael Bilandic’s second feature film, Hellaware, are not quite as long and winding. After his first feature, Happy Life, received a limited release at Brooklyn’s reRun Gastropub Theater last fall, he made a decision to shoot a second one in April, without any element in place apart from his cameraman’s availability. Happy Life and Hellaware are akin in their themes as well as their production methods: using casts of mostly non-professionals but carefully scripted and structured, they walk a delicate line between affection and mockery in their witty treatment of various NYC subcultures. Both films feature large supporting casts and a wide array of NYC locations, both were shot in 17 days and both share the same key crew. But while the films share a similar sensibility and scope, Bilandic and his producers Rachel Fernandes and Spencer Kiernan made a conscious effort to step things up a notch with Hellaware. “We felt we had a little more to prove the second time around,” says Bilandic. For Hellaware, they shot on the Sony PMW-F3 camera (Happy Life had been on mini-DV) and the production was expanded to allow more time for casting and to include dedicated costume, art direction and makeup personnel. While the team discussed the possibility of expanding the project further by attaching name actors, the prospect of a longer casting and fundraising process and the potential compromises involved swayed them toward a more immediately viable approach. In the end, $40,000 was raised from a handful of private investors. Although the filmmakers had personal relationships with these investors, Fernandes says the success of a film like Tiny Furniture was instrumental in “convincing someone who’s not part of the film world that you can shoot something that takes place in a somewhat insular world for very little money and it can still appeal to a pretty wide audience.”
Walter Strafford, who has directed several shorts and worked in the grip and electric departments of films like The Innkeepers and The Visitor, initially wrote his first feature for a budget comparable to Hellaware’s. With this in mind, he had set around two thirds of the script—which deals with a man’s plan to escape “a routine job and stagnant relationship” by climbing the film’s eponymous mountain—in a single apartment. But after attending a reading of the script hosted by Strafford’s lawyer, fellow writer-director Ryan Piers Williams fell in love with the project and committed to producing it. He then enticed Jason Michael Berman, who had co-produced Williams’ own first feature and Sundance 2010 competition film The Dry Land, to come on board. Since that film, Berman has raised money for six more independent features, most with six figure and low seven-figure budgets and name casts. Berman and Williams enlisted the help of well-connected casting director Nicole Abellera, and the script got into the hands of established actors. Pretty soon, a bigger budget seemed like a real possibility and Strafford began rewriting and expanding the script accordingly. In the end, $200,000 was raised with the commitment of Brian Geraghty (The Hurt Locker) in the lead role as well as a distinguished supporting cast including Abigail Spencer (Cowboys & Aliens), Jim Gaffigan (Away We Go) and Alexia Rasmussen (Our Idiot Brother). The whole process from that first reading to production lasted a year and a half, with the money effectively raised in about five months, all from financiers Berman had a previous relationship with. Berman was actually surprised that it took even this length of time: “This is one of the smallest movies I’ve done, budget-wise, so I expected it to come together pretty quickly.”
The main shoot for Nautilus consisted of a haunting, starkly lit close-up of the performer Marti Domination, best known for her role in Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 1. Filmed at Fotopoulos’ Williamsburg artist’s studio, the shoot did not even take up the whole of the Saturday afternoon for which it was scheduled. Arranged between Fotopoulos’ sketch-scattered desk and his walls filled with pastel drawings and storyboards, the production of Nautilus could not have been more minimal, consisting of nothing more than the director, the actress, the camera (the same miniDV camera and tape he began the project on all those years ago), a black backdrop and a single light. This minimal number of moving parts meant his set felt completely free of the tensions or time pressures that are often associated with microbudget filmmaking—he even offered to reschedule the shoot to suit our visit. Things took as long as they took, which, despite Domination’s makeup taking an hour or two longer than expected, was really not very long at all. The production’s simplicity also gave Fotopoulos a level of control over each element that independent filmmakers rarely possess, with the only limitations primarily self-imposed ones.
Fotopoulos had approached Domination through a mutual friend, offering her the part and sharing a two-page outline of the project. Their preliminary discussions focused primarily on the look of the character, which Domination then created herself, drawing on her own collection of costumes and makeup. While the placement of this scene in the finished piece has been carefully predesigned, the specifics of Domination’s performance seemed to largely emerge in the moment—something Fotopoulos is generally open to, despite his meticulous approach. Pointing toward the storyboards for Nautilus hanging on his studio wall, he says, “Everything in this film is in these boards, basically. But within these compositions, things change – in terms of the textures and in terms of what the actors bring to it.”
For the other two shoots, the coordination of elements was not so simple. Despite the difference in their budgets, Hellaware and Kilimanjaro are in some ways very close in scope and ambition: both are comedies shot on location around NYC and each had more than 20 locations to film and less than three weeks to do it in (17 days for Hellaware, 20 for Kilimanjaro). What clearly differentiates them is the scale and composition of their teams.
Hellaware was shot with a fairly skeleton crew (on average, one person per department) and with a few key positions (a.d. and script supervisor) completely absent. We visited the set during the filming of two scenes: a Bushwick gallery scene with a dozen or so decadently costumed extras, and an afternoon shoot at an East Village bar, Heathers, which doubled for two separate locations. The core of Hellaware’s crew had considerable experience with each other, some from studying film at NYU and many from working at the venerable NYC video store, Kim’s Video and Music. Those who hadn’t worked with Bilandic before were often discovered through mutual friends—he met lead actor Keith Poulson, for example, through Alex Ross Perry, whose recent feature The Color Wheel was also shot by cinematographer Sean Price Williams. While key personnel were paid something for their work on Hellaware, the film wasn’t a union shoot, and it was clear that friendships and enthusiasm for the material were the principle binding forces on set.
To the untrained eye, a director can often be hard to pick out in the bustle of a film shoot, but it was easy enough to identify Bilandic, handling a large, hardbound folder and peering over Williams’ shoulder at the small LCD screen attached to the camera. There was clearly a familiarity and shorthand between the two that helped maintain a certain pace without the propulsion and discipline that a first a.d. typically provides. Apart from the few crowded gallery scenes, Bilandic called his own shots and kept his own time, with the producers occasionally checking in.
For Fernandes, this setup was definitely a challenge. “The reason you get an a.d. is not just for efficiency and moving things along, it’s also to hire a villain,” she says. “It’s so that you have one person on set everyone can bitch about and then that person can come in and be the bearer of annoying news.”
Walking onto the set of Kilimanjaro, the difference in scale was immediately apparent: at least three people in every department, a lot more lighting and grip equipment, a video assist monitor for the director and script supervisor, an equipment truck rather than a van, etc. But coming from several multimillion dollar projects, for the producers it was refreshing how small this shoot was in comparison. From Berman’s point of view, it meant “less moving parts,” both physical—less trucks and no trailers, a smaller transport department—and psychological: “We haven’t had to deal with any egos on this film, and that makes the producer’s job a lot easier.” On bigger productions, he says, “people usually have a lot more needs.” We visited the production on its second day, which began with three short scenes at the Franklin Park bar in Crown Heights. The bar — for which the second a.d.’s careful direction of background action was another sign of the difference in scale — was chosen for its proximity to the next location that day, a members-only swimming pool on Eastern Parkway. In each case, the crew quickly transformed the space according to the needs of their department: a craft services table on the sidewalk, an unused bar turned into a wardrobe and costume-fitting area; at the pool, one locker room became a production office decked out with printers and laptops, another became the hangout area for the actors.
While the team for Hellaware was essentially drawn from friends and colleagues, Kilimanjaro’s crew mostly came from bigger projects the producers had worked on previously. It was also a Screen Actors Guild shoot, operating under their Ultra-Low Budget scheme (Kilimanjaro’s budget is the maximum a film can have in order to qualify), which allows for the casting of SAG actors at reduced rates. But it was not a union shoot with regard to the other departments, and no one involved pulled in their standard salary. And while people within particular departments had worked together before, this was not the case for the crew as a whole or, most notably, for the director, who was working with all of the heads of department for the first time. Accordingly, first a.d. Tobijah Tyler was instrumental in holding everything together and keeping each department on the same page, and his driving presence on set was hard to miss. With almost 20 years of experience as an a.d., he evinced a careful balance between geniality and no-nonsense efficiency; if people failed to follow his instructions, or didn’t communicate their movements, they would know about it. He was also usually the one to call “action.”
While more money can mean more time and more resources, Berman says that it’s still usually “being stretched as far it will go, just as it’s being stretched on this film.” According to Strafford, with the film as it was rewritten, “this was the minimum amount we needed to make it.” This goes someway to explaining why, despite having several times the budget, a film like Kilimanjaro isn’t necessarily an easier shoot than one like Hellaware. Scheduling and locations were tricky elements for both shoots. According to Bilandic, “Having such a short amount of days and such a giant number of actors, it was logistically next to impossible to juggle the schedule around.” More often than not, however, locations that fell through or proved problematic were replaced almost miraculously with better ones, sometimes simply by virtue of a Facebook post asking for help. Because Bilandic and Fernandes have been living in the East Village for more than 10 years, they have a strong local network to call on for favors. Working with a professional locations manager and more intrusive shooting requirements, it was a little harder for Kilimanjaro to slip under the radar, and the “film-savvy” nature of NYC property owners didn’t make things easier. “We are pulling in a lot of favors,” said Williams on our visit, “but for the locations that we don’t have any connection to, it’s been tricky to find ones that will work with us with what we have to offer.” Because the concentrated preproduction period for the film was only two weeks, it wasn’t possible for the director and d.p. to personally scout each location and this also created complications on shoot day—for example, the Crown Heights bar turned out to be spatially awkward for the blocking of one scene as it had been written, forcing it to be reconceived on the spot.
Fotopoulos attributes the discipline of his approach to his origins shooting on 16mm. “When you shot on film, mistakes were so risky and so expensive, so you conditioned yourself to be very disciplined. Later on, I just extended that approach into video.” He describes the atmosphere on his sets as relaxed, but in a way that facilitates very focused activity. “It’s a loose atmosphere, everyone knows each other—but at the same time it has to be that way, because I shoot in a way that’s very intense. Once things are set up, we move pretty intensely and relentlessly through the shoot.” He is resistant to calling the other people on his films collaborators per se, since the framework of the project is so preconceived, but he emphasizes the importance of choosing people based on what they can uniquely bring to it. “People get on the same wavelength with you,” he says, “and anybody who gets involved is going to bring their ‘thing’ to it. That’s part of the risk of the film, that’s part of what makes it alive.” He sees a project like this as a kind of “laboratory of filmmaking” that then feeds into his other work. However, it’s the genre-based narrative projects, working with a skeleton crew more akin to the Hellaware shoot, that he considers his main focus, and he is always working on these kinds of projects in parallel. Most recently he shot Dignity, a $50,000 sci-fi movie, with the Zellner brothers at Troublemaker Studios in Austin. While he is wary of people seeing a film like Nautilus and thinking, “this is either all you can do or all you want to do,” ultimately he defends the eclectic approach: “If I can do these types of films as part of a body of work and do the drawings and do narrative films, I don’t see why not.”
The budget of Hellaware entailed certain restrictions, but it also suited Bilandic’s preferred way of working, namely with a small crew and at a reasonably fast pace (or occasionally intensely fast: at their height, Bilandic and his crew got through 15 pages of the script in one night). Williams has a background in documentary, having worked with Albert Maysles, among others, and is well used to shooting handheld with minimum lighting setups, as was the case here. Although the film was not extensively rehearsed, there was a thorough auditioning process for each supporting part that effectively doubled as rehearsal, and there was rarely much revision of scenes on location. Bilandic averages about three takes per shot and his direction of actors on set tends to be minimal, with the scripted scene closely adhered to. (Ad-libbed additions are sometimes indulged, but only after the scene as written has been covered.)
The way in which Kilimanjaro was organized gave the set the feeling of a well-oiled machine, very distinct from Hellaware. While no less efficient in terms of its schedule and pace, Bilandic’s production still had a looseness and informality that made it feel much more like friends hanging out and making a movie. The Kilimanjaro crew had more industry experience, and Strafford and his d.p. Gavin Kelly (shooting on the RED camera) aimed for something more akin to the glow and sheen of a Hollywood drama—not an easy task with a grip and electric department only three strong. Still, even with 20 to 30 crew members watching, Strafford maintained space for his actors to breathe and their scenes to develop. The most important thing, he says, is that no matter how hectic and machine-like things have to get between setups, once the camera rolls, everyone’s attention is on the scene itself and the actors are allowed to take their time without distractions.
While each of these three setups present different challenges and opportunities creatively, Bilandic’s approach is perhaps the most representative of that of many emerging independent filmmakers today; it is both the most immediately achievable and most demanding route to take. While Strafford was fortunate enough to access a more traditional model of film financing and production, and in turn a wealth of industry experience, and Fotopoulos has basically created the self-sustaining momentum of his own private studio system, Bilandic relies on friends, his local community and sheer willpower. As he put it, “Basically we just arbitrarily set the date and willed everything into existence.” Abel Ferrara, who both Bilandic and Fernandes have worked with in a production capacity, was an inspiration in this approach. “He’ll just say he’s going to do something, before all the elements are in place and really commit to doing it,” says Fernandes. “And people are much more likely to get on board when it seems like it’s actually going to happen, as opposed to the vague intention of ‘some day I’m going to make this movie.’ Just commit, say you’re going to do it, and do it. And then people are going to match that enthusiasm and help you get it done.”