How I Learned to Stop Whining and Love the Game

by Katherine Bruens

I work professionally as a Producer and Production Manager in the advertising industry and independent film world here in San Francisco. I am also one half of a partnership that has produced three micro budget features here. Rather than become frustrated that the market in San Francisco has demanded that I spread my attention between these three worlds, I’ve embraced this hybrid.  This market gives me a way not only to maintain my freedom to usher forward new personally driven works, but it also allows me to produce media through a broad spectrum of strategies, sometimes with vastly different amounts of money. What’s more, in the end these projects are all trying to achieve a similar result.

CXL, my partner Sean Gillane and my current feature, is just starting its public life with a local premiere at the San Francisco Film Society’s Cinema by the Bay, while our first film Corner Store is delivering to its final distribution outlet with Hulu. Thus I feel I am in an interesting place to look both back and forward at our experiences producing and developing audiences for these local films in relation to the spectrum of possible strategies and budget categories I have been a part of professionally here in San Francisco.

The following is a collection of some of my thoughts and experiences dealing with how to produce a film by recognizing that yes, all projects need resources, but that while of course they can be purchased for money, they can also be developed through relationships and time. What's more, when money is lacking, and it always is, look to the potential value of the resources around you and the potential value you have to offer in the project itself.

From top to bottom and beginning to end, making a film takes a lot of resources, this we know. This is what makes the production process both so challenging and so potentially beautiful.  It’s important to remember that each project has a unique set of needs and resources, perhaps its best to begin thusly:

1      Assess your resources and strategize the best way to satisfy those needs

2      Choose a production style and timeline that accommodates the valuable resources around you (your own time and energy included)

3      Offer what you have in exchange, which in many cases is a real stake in the project you are working on;

4      Deal with the remaining hard costs applying all the same

Perhaps these are obvious when read, but I want to push the particular point of doing this as early as possible, especially when money is the resource most lacking.

A lot of the initial feedback for CXL has been anchored in praise over the uniqueness of the ideas and the success achieving these ideas in the final product. This praise is gratifying in part because the project was designed to do just that.

When we started CXL, the director Sean Gillane and I spent time examining the resources (money, time, relationships) that we had available to us and created a script and production strategy that utilized those resources, rather than chasing resources that we had no access to. By beginning this way we were able to ensure that this film would 1) be completed and 2) be completed to our standards and expectations.

Perhaps a micro-budget example will help to illustrate the point:

I want to make a narrative feature and know I don’t have the money to pay for a casting director and subsequently to pay my talent. Do I a) give up and cast myself knowing I have no training, or b) go to a local theater performance and scout for talent that would be interested in working with me for the experience? By choosing the latter, I have used my time and relationships to get my film the talent it deserves and have substituted time and relationships for money. Moreover, in order to cast this highly capable actor as the lead in my film, I need to ensure that he can fit our production schedule into his life without being financially affected. My calendar will need to shift to make sure that the value of this relationship afforded me can make it to the screen.

The process repeats itself with locations, crew and post-production personnel.

At this point another distinction must be made that applies to micro-budget, but perhaps just as much to Low-Budget as well. There is a world of difference between calling up, say, a director of photography and asking if they can come work for 30 plus days for you on your feature for free, versus grabbing a coffee with someone who is a shooter whose work you love and saying “I have this project and I’d love to show you the script and see what you think.”

You have a project that is empty of personnel and hungry for the checks and balances a creative team should give it. Why not approach someone with a blank canvass of possibility? How would they like to be involved? What do they think your project could value from?

If you have an LB or ULB project keep in mind any added value you can give your team by inviting them to be part of a collaboration. This will supplement the drop in pay they will ultimately need to agree to and will help you assemble your human resources while improving your film in the end. I can tell you from experience that nothing will piss off your crew more than treating them like hired help when they came on despite the rate for the love of the game.

Even in advertising I can approach crew for a job and ask if they can help make my budget work in this or that way if, say for example its a new client for them and they feel as though helping out will help them get more work in the future.

When indie filmmakers get wind of what commercial budgets are like, it can be a shocking and sometimes infuriating experience. But when I have the opportunity to look back on this spectrum of production, it is no surprise that commercial budgets could have me spending 500K on a couple of days of shooting. This content has to be delivered in breakneck speeds. With weeks or even days to assemble what without money could/should take months, the cash keeps things moving. Oh yeah, and the client gets the final word.

So what of the hard costs in indie? When I began Corner Store, all I had was my time and access to a subject I was sure would make a wonderfully interesting documentary. After my own ducks were in a row I reached out to two parties, a camera owner to help me shoot some test footage, and a friend interested in film who had a history of event coordination. Both became interested in their own right and organically became part of the team. With that I could begin to create the infrastructure to help us raise the money for the hard costs of equipment and our travel costs to Palestine.

The same principles apply to your supporters as when assembling your production team. I have the great pleasure of being able to say that in our two largest live fundraising events for Corner Store we were able to raise first $6,000 in one day and subsequently $12,000 in one day to supplement the thousands we continued to raise along the way on and offline. I could write a lot on how this was accomplished, but one thing I can say here is it was not done by expecting that people would care about my project and sitting back to let the funding come to me. The burden was on me to create relationships with leaders in communities I felt would see the most value in what I was doing and, just as with my crew, showing them how their help would be crucial to what would become our shared goal.

By allowing them access to the creation of the film I was inviting them to share in the subsequent feelings of success. Whatsmore, by treating each and every person like a member of our team by the time the film was released we had supporters there to fill every theater and feel as though they were part of the collective effort to push the film out into the world.

All of this, as previously stated, is the beauty and the burden of film. Even as I’m sure my future experiences will more clearly mold these ideas and I can only hope will usher in many more, at this particular vantage point I wish to highlight two main take aways;

1) When you want to build something, anything, a strategy should take precedence above all else. This seems inordinately obvious when applied to most industries, but should be considered just as important in the creation of the most collaborative art form available. 

2) Money is just one kind of resource, and I’ve never seen any production be successful through money alone.

Trailer: http://vimeo.com/51766635

BIO: Katherine Bruens is a local Producer and Production Manager in both Advertising and Independent Film in San Francisco. Her directorial debut Corner Store, a documentary feature, gained a strong local following and enjoyed glowing reviews from local news outlets as well as the New York Times. With Corner Store in distribution internationally and a digital deal with HULU in the works, she is focusing her energy on partner Sean Gillane and her current feature, CXL while beginning to develop their next project with their ever growing San Francisco team. 

FEAR & MOVIES: Morocco, Hollywood and Me

By John Slattery 

Having been overseas for three and a half years, I returned to the United States.

When I came back, I came straight to San Francisco.

In the first few weeks people would ask, “So, where’d you move here from?” When I told them I’d just come from a year of teaching in Paris, 99% of their responses had a similar theme, which all fit into one category: I LOVE PARIS!

Typical responses were:

“Paris! Wow, lucky you!”; or

“You know my wife and I had our honeymoon in Paris”; or just,

“Man, I love Paris!”

 

Often in the same conversations, their follow up question had to do with where I was before Paris. When I told them that I’d been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco for two and a half years – they had a very different kind of response. They usually all fit into two different categories:

One sounded like this:

- “Morocco?… Were you scared?”

- “Morocco, hmmmm…. and you lived to tell the tale?

- “You know, my wife and I, we were in Paris on our honeymoon and, we - got a ticket to go to Marrakesh for the weekend… but then, well, you know, we decided not to go.”

 

I call this category: FEAR.

 

The second category sounded like this:

- “Morocco?  Did you ever see that mummy movie with the guy…. In some desert and there is this windstorm coming…? That was all shot in Morocco”; or

- “My wife and I, we were in Paris on our honeymoon… and we went into this great little theatre in the 5th… and we saw Laurence of Arabia there….Wasn’t that made in Morocco?; or

- “ Morocco yea!...Black Hawk freakin’ Down!”

 

This category I call: MOVIES

 

My first feature length film (CASABLANCA MON AMOUR) is a non-traditional road movie, shot in Morocco, which explores the entwined relationship between FEAR & MOVIES.

The film will have a special preview screening at the on Saturday Nov 10 at 2:30pm at the New People Cinema in San Francisco (1746 Post St in Japantown) .

This screening is organized as part of the San Francisco Film Society's Cinema By The Bay Festival.

Tickets for the screening can be purchased now via the link below.

LINK to SFFS page about the film and about the screening

http://sffs.org/content.aspx?pageid=3216 

BACK IN THE USA

Looking back at my return to the United States in 1998, I am surprised so many Americans associated Morocco with FEAR, inasmuch as the events of 9/11 had not yet transpired.

Before spending those two and a half years in Morocco, I’d spent a year of high-school living with relatives in Ireland. When I returned from that first sojourn, nobody said, “Oooooh, Ireland, scary …”

My experience in Morocco reminded me of time spent in Ireland. Both the Moroccan and Irish cultures take hospitality very seriously. Neither culture has any regard for time. The Irish saying, “If you are only a day late, you’re still too early,” has a near exact translation in Moroccan Arabic.

Strangers and relatives took great care of me in Ireland; strangers and friends took great care of me during my time in Morocco.

When going to another land to experience its culture or to make a movie, factor these two things into your equation: a serious regard for hospitality and serious regard for good food.  You will find both of these in Morocco!

  

MORE ABOUT THE FILM:

We are now two wars and more than ten years past the events of 9/11. And the landscape of the entire Middle East—of the world—radically changes every day.

 

Casablanca Mon Amour addresses what is perhaps the most pressing social issue of our time: The history, strength and quality of a particular relationship between an Arab/Islamic and a Western society. The relationship (between the U.S. and Morocco) is examined through the cultural lens of cinema.

Get this: From 1896 to 2000 over a thousand U.S. films showed Arab / Muslim characters. Of these, only 12 films showed positive characters, 52 were neutral, and more than 900 were portrayed negatively.

Casablanca Mon Amour offers a critical perspective—one often missing from the dialogue about Islamic World/West relations—on the unchallenged lineage of degrading images of Arabs in Hollywood movies.  With a look toward how these images naturalize prejudicial attitudes toward Arab/Islamic culture in the U.S. as well as how audiences in Arab/Islamic countries interpret these images.  Adding to the ongoing debate within the United States about America's national character and global role, the film connects to similar debates unfolding within the Muslim world.

Casablanca Mon Amour is a modern road movie—using movies as a road map plotting the course between yesterday’s Hollywood and today’s Morocco—that encapsulates the more complex and fractured nature of living in a world where TV and wars compete for headlines and occupy imaginations.

John Slattery (Producer/Director) began work in television as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, where he wrote and hosted a pilot for a social-issue TV series at the Moroccan National Institute of Television.  John has collaborated with a broad range of talented producers, DP’s and organizations on a number of short and full-length films, and TV shows, including: two-time Academy Award ® winning Cinematographer Haskell Wexler ASC, PBS/WNET American Masters, and MTV.  In 2004 John founded Zween Works (www.zweenworks.com) - a multidisciplinary film and video production house that produces short and long format social-issue films. Zween Works focus is creating narratives which inform and connect people to issues and organizations that work for justice.

  

FILM FACEBOOK PAGE:

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Casablanca-Mon-Amour/511685505523821

 

MORE MOVIE TRAILERS:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65CUcraosdo

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSyvnSh6OLg

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7fQp9VfvhS8

Sometimes You Have To Change The Ending -- Metaphors & All

By Alejandro Adams "If we do not reunite Sykes and Thornton, which shows that people do side together, that they do stick with each other...then perhaps we have destroyed everything we have been talking about in this picture." -- Producer Phil Feldman in a letter to Sam Peckinpah regarding the the final scene of THE WILD BUNCH *

It's not every day that a notorious bruiser of a director gets along with his producer. But it's equally rare that a producer respects a filmmaker and his vision to the degree illustrated by the note above--Feldman had even protested Peckinpah excising some of the film's more violent bits. Directors are usually the ones who get so far up the ass of their own work they can't see clearly. In a somewhat alarming inversion, Feldman was a producer exhibiting more concern for the integrity of the film than for the paying audience. **

I've started with an anecdote about a producer not only because this quasi-promotional outing is brought to you by Ted Hope's kind invitation but also because filmmaking is about relationships, sometimes just one relationship, and it can feel like the scene that reunites Sykes and Thornton. Or not.

My new film AMITY, which screens as part of Cinema by the Bay on Saturday, contains a 26-minute scene. I think the San Francisco Film Society programmers deserve a special round of applause for overlooking that obstinate quirk. The scene takes place in the back of a limousine at night, which only makes it worse. I don't know how my producer feels about the scene, whether she's egging me on or rolling her eyes. We don't talk much. We're divorcing, slowly, just passing the three-year mark. We're in the middle of a custody battle that looks like the climactic shootout of THE WILD BUNCH but in much slower motion. Three years, gattling guns still tearing through flesh. I could make it sound less dramatic, but sprinkling potpourri on a pile of dogshit can only do so much.

My producer and I made some good films together. I think AMITY is one of them. The problem for me, and the main reason it took me three years to finish the film, is that its themes rub up against reality too much. I'm frightened by the thought that AMITY could be my future. Maybe the film is a prophecy. But then it's normal to be scared of your own film. Every time you create something, you risk creating a monster. If you can't stand the heat, etc, etc.

Incidentally, I can't stand the heat.

I owe apologies to those who gave themselves to this project three years ago. I didn't know my life was about to derail. People in my projects don't just show up and say some lines I wrote. They use their real names and real history and fabricate only enough to conform to the story I'm trying to tell. Greg and Michael, who play Greg and Michael in the film, are just Greg and Michael. Greg tells some colorful stories about Bangkok, Michael tells us he was a therapist in the Army. So far it's a documentary. I don't want to go on giving away details--I'm just trying to illustrate that the commitment I ask for is not superficial. You will sacrifice yourself if you make a film with me. That part I'm not sorry about. I'm just sorry all that commitment sat on a shelf for three years.

Integrally related to the breakup of my marriage is the loss of a distribution deal for my first three films. I don't want to be too confessional here--let's just say I lost everything in one go. If you want more detail, buy me a drink sometime. You'll find out why I have abandoned everything and everyone that qualifies as "the independent film scene" from Brooklyn to San Francisco.

I will say in passing, though, that my distributor regularly disparaged Ted Hope because Hope's definition of "independent film" never seemed to include zero-budget films. But here he is offering me space to go on about my zero-budget film. And I'm giving him a firm handshake.

The publicists at the festival cringed when I confessed that there's no Facebook page or trailer for my film. I'm not trying to be an asshole. I appreciate these opportunities. I hope everyone who reads this buys a ticket to see my film. My previous three films sold out multiple screenings in 500-seat venues. AMITY is screening in a venue with 150 seats and I'm told the advance sales are "light."

I went into the premiere of my first film with critical head of steam behind it. That head of steam only increased on my second film. When my third film was ready to screen I didn't have any of the vitality that had fueled the success of the others. It screened once. No, twice. It's not as if those critics or festivals disappeared. I disappeared. There were screener requests and screening invitations but I was too much of a zombie to answer a simple email. I don't know if I owe anyone an apology for that--I only hurt myself.

At the peak of my success I had...a few glowing pullquotes. Man, this makes me tired.

I have led people to believe that AMITY has some kinship with Cassavetes's HUSBANDS. Maybe it does. But there is some hokey self-psychologizing in the dialogue that is intended to neuter its commentary about "men today"--they don't understand themselves any better when talking about "phallic symbols." It's just embarrassing.

I don't care about men today. My film is about men, now and forever. Its scrutiny is unyielding which led the SFFS programmers to pronounce on it mercilessly in the festival guide blurb. Maybe everybody in my films is a piece of shit and maybe I'm a piece of shit too.

I got some things from my father. You have to get them from somewhere.

AMITY is about the way a man stands holding a pool cue, the way he talks through a big bite of hamburger, the way he admires old American cars, the way he is aggressively lonely, the way he internalizes agony until it becomes something else. It's about a man who's willing to be there for another man no one wants to be there for. Like RIO BRAVO. Why does Chance stick around and help Dude when Dude clearly has no self-respect and has dishonored the badge? Maybe friendship isn't the point--just integrity, just character. Fuck doing something because it's noble, do something because it's right. They say RIO BRAVO is a response to the politics of HIGH NOON. I'm not an academic or a critic or a politician. I'm just a man. I'd like to be the kind of man Hawks threw into the town of Rio Bravo when Dude needed someone. Anyone. AMITY is about that kind of anyone. There is an enormous closeup of his profile and contrary to the logic of the profile shot, he is accessible, he is giving. It's a horrible shot, defying good taste, uncomfortable to the viewer, bad cinema. I am very attached to this shot.

It amuses me that some filmmakers still think they're being transgressive when they put a bunch of sex and violence on screen. When I was in fourth grade I drew a picture of a hand giving the finger to some kid sitting next to me. I got it out of my system early I guess. What's really transgressive in a film these days is forgiveness. Redemption stories are common--that's not what I mean. I mean forgiveness in the face of non-redemptive behavior.

Satyajit Ray made films that move me. He might be the only one. It's foolhardy and even dangerous to try to make films that move people. Especially if you're shooting standard-def 4:3 video. You really must be out of your mind.

Regarding IM LAUF DER ZEIT Wim Wenders said he was interested in examining why straight men sometimes choose each other's company rather than that of women. My film is about two men who do not seem to get along but who choose to be together anyway--and incorporating a few women complicates their tenative bond, to put it mildly.

Marriages may end, friendships may end, but maybe something happens between two people one night and it doesn't have a label and it scratches an itch you didn't know you had.

And that's how I would describe my film.

----

BIO: Alejandro Adams wrote and directed the zero-budget features AROUND THE BAY, CANARY and BABNIK which are collecting the most exquisite dust. He has been called the "first meaningful filmmaker to make himself known through Twitter"*** but he no longer has a Twitter account so there you go. Alejandro has two children with beautiful blue eyes and longs for seventeen more with beautiful brown eyes.

* "Peckinpah: The Western Films -- A Reconsideration," by Paul Seydor

** It's a long, complicated story with an unfortunate outcome. Sykes and Thornton didn't, as it were, stick together in real life.

*** Interview with Vadim Rizov

Ted's note: I am not sure who Alejandro's distributor was but s/he clearly was comfortably talking knowingly about something they knew little about (aka me!).  My commitment to indie, as demonstrated by my actions, encompasses no-budget, micro, and beyond.  The actions of  a distributor dropping an artist's films demonstrate something else altogether...

CHECK OUT ALL OF The San Francisco Film Society's program:  "Cinema By The Bay".  I hope to see you there.