Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Gettin' Ink Done

Art Direction is often forgotten in independent film. The myth is that most low-budget filmmakers don't have the funds or resources to use anything but the exact location they find and clothes the actors own. I couldn't disagree more. Sure, a low-budget film might be ill-advised to attempt a sci-fi period piece (though even then, it's possible), but you'd be surprised what you can accomplish with the right talent and a little imagination.

Our Art Director, Stephanie Petagno, is overflowing with both. I'll eventually get an interview with her up here, but she tends to stay a little busy with things, like working on designs for Women's Studies. What's great about her is she has enough talent, drive, and imagination to allow me to just point her in the right direction and let her go. Which isn't to say that I'm totally hands off on the Art Direction. On the contrary, it's one of the things I love to deal with most. However, with a thousand other things to deal with as director (and co-producer), it's nice to have full creative confidence in someone who is going to be helping us make vitally important decisions about the final look of the film.

We'll go deeper into the philosophy behind the Women's Studies "look" in a future blog, hopefully in the Stephanie Petagno interview. For now, we'll just talk a little about one specific piece of finished design work; "the academy girl tattoo."

In the script, the "academy girls" wear a tattoo to symbolize their allegiance to the Ross-Prentiss cause. It's also a way of letting the audience know who's with them or against them, which as the story unfolds, becomes important.

The problem with using a tattoo in such a "Mark of Cain" manner becomes one of subtlety. Now, you may argue that the use of a tattoo, period, just isn't very subtle, but it's all in the execution. Showing a woman walking down the street then cutting to close-up of the tattoo on her body while effective, comes on a little hard and fast. However, when establishing a motif like the tattoo, I believe this kind of "in your face" composition works best. One of the first shots of Women's Studies will be a close-up of the tattoo. Then the camera will pull back to reveal who's wearing it. Not too subtle, but again, in that moment we're simply setting up the visual cue.

The idea is that in most subsequent appearances, we won't have to take the time to blatantly point out the tattoo. It'll be just "part of the scenery," so to speak. By simply appearing, the tattoo becomes a subtle reminder to the audience, "That's a Ross-Prentiss girl."

To this end, I gave Stephanie two instructions about the tattoo. First, that the design should NOT be the circle and cross female symbol that we use in the Women's Studies logo. We talked a little bit about the "pagan" aspects of the story, but honestly not much. The second was that whatever the design would be, it should be "stylized" with sharp lines in order to contrast with the skin of the person wearing it. That way we won't have to constantly use close-ups to point it out.

"Give me something to yea or nay," was how I put it.

Stephanie gave me lots of somethings, and ultimately, the design we decided on was this:

Academy Girl Tattoo

Basically, the design is a modified heraldic dagger, or pointed cross, which is often used in typography to denote someone's death date. More fitting I thought were two botanical meanings of the symbol which Stephanie pointed out: "Poisonous" or "A plant once cultivated that now grows wild."

In theory, each character's tattoo will have it's own variations in color and size. As mentioned before, there are a couple of key tattoo "reveals" essential to the plot. However, the basic design will remain the same with each character.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Looking Back, Moving Forward

Really quick: The webzine, Great Society, continues it's reposting of my four-part "Horror 101" series. Part 2, "The Moral Majority Massacre," is now live. It's a brief look at slasher films. Check it out.

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Yesterday was a good day for Women's Studies, which means I'm taking this week off from movie work. Okay. Actually, I probably won't, though between holiday parties, last minute X-Mas shopping, and a couple side jobs I've taken, when exactly I'll be giving the film attention between now and Christmas Day is something of a mystery.

It's funny, Women's Studies is still in a weird in-between phase that's half development and half pre-production. There's a cottage industry that publishes books about "How to Make Your Independent Film." And I'd be lying if I said I didn't own a handful of them. Really though, no matter what book, or even person for that matter, tells you "This is what it's like," each film is it's own beast.

At the beginning of 2006, Women's Studies was little more than an idea, just Cindy and I saying, "Hey. Let's do this." At years end, not only have we incorporated our production company, but we've taken some fairly large steps forward to getting this film ready to shoot. While a lot of this past year has been (and still is) about raising money, we've done a pretty good deal of "pre"-pre-production work. A marketing plan is in place. Some cast has been chosen. Design work is being drawn up. Equipment is being tested and selected. Recently, location scouting has begun.

I know I can be "Mr. Cliché" sometimes, but slow and steady wins the race. We live in a world of instant gratification, but the things worth doing take time, resolve, and patience . . . so much patience. While there have been moments where I've been immensely frustrated this year, in the end, barreling through and persevering has been worth it. Taking a rest at this point in time, I can look forward and see that I've still got quite a climb ahead of me. Yet I can also look back and marvel at how far I've climbed.

I haven't done this alone either. There's a wonderful support group of family, friends, cast, and crew that believe in this project as much as I do. It's nice to know that in my weaker moments, I have people that will harness me up and keep pulling me up the mountain. Cindy, who you'll remember is not only acting in but co-producing Women's Studies, especially deserves kudos. She does a lot of work that no one ever sees. Lots of people do, and we're moving towards a place where soon we'll be able to shine some light on them.

2007 is the year of production. The goal everyone is working towards is the day when we get Women's Studies up in front of the camera. Right now, we're continuing to break down the script which we hope to have completed soon. The next few months will see the productions staff finalizing designs, locking in schedules and locations, shooting test footage, and bringing on additional cast and crew.

It's going to be a wild ride and the pace will start to get faster and faster. Stay tuned. The best is yet to come.

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You won't want to miss next week's blog as for a little X-Mas present, we'll be publicly unveiling the first design work from Women's Studies; the "academy girl tattoo," created by our Art Director, Stephanie Petagno.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Right Place, Right Time

A couple of quick items before I get into the meat of this week's blog:

First, back in the September 19, 2006 blog entry (Death and the Horror Film) I posted an excerpt from "Horror Movies 101," a four part essay originally published on the webzine, Great Society. During a big technical mix up they had last year, those articles along with others were accidentally removed. However, the Great Society management has been kind of enough to offer to republish the "Horror Movies 101" piece, and will do so over the next couple of weeks. The first part is already live. Click here to read "Horror Movies 101: Intro and Evolution (Part 1 of 4).

Secondly, I realized this week that I had about a dozen un-moderated comments from the past two months of blogs that I hadn't dealt with. So, if you were wondering why I was being such a jerk and not posting your comments, the truth is that I'm not that snooty. Flaky maybe, but not snooty. Anyway, all those backlogged comments are now live. I'll be sure to keep up with the comments now, so by all means, keep them coming.

Thank you for your attention. We now continue with your regularly scheduled blog.

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"Shh. Be Vewy Quiet, I'm Hunting Wocations."

To me, location is where the real process of filmmaking begins. Once you know where you're going to shoot, things like scheduling, shot composition, and technical requirements can start to be looked at. For my first film when I couldn't find the space I wanted, I literally had a set built in the basement of my house. How's that for obsessive?

From a location point of view, Women's Studies is challenging in that the script requires multiple locations, 56 to be precise. That's a lot for any film, but with a low budget one like ours, multiple locations can be a real headache. We don't have the funds to pay large location fees. Plus, searching for and securing locations takes time. It's not dissimilar from fundraising in that it requires lots of phone calls, follow-ups, and patience. Also like fundraising, despite all your efforts and hard work, you have no guarantee that anything is going to come through.

The good news is that over half of the Women's Studies locations are within the boundaries of the fictional "Ross-Prentiss Women's Academy." Therefore, my attitude has been to try and find a location that can serve the multiple functions of a campus. While finding these locations has been easy, getting permission to film on them has been something else entirely.

When discussing this problem, a few of my friends have been like, "Dude, just sneak in somewhere and do it. Who's going to know? Guerilla filmmaking! Yeah! Down with the oppressive corporate octopus!"

Yes, yes. Damn the octopus. Here's the problem with guerilla shooting:

First, I don't know where you live, but in my country, trespassing is illegal. As much I want to get this movie made, I'd rather not to go jail to do it. (Though think of the publicity.) And as grand poobah of this crazy, little tribe, it'd be my neck in the hangman's noose. Even assuming I'm a total ninja and we don't get caught shooting the film, not having the permission could kill any distribution deal Women's Studies may or may not get offered.

One of our selling points to distributors is that fact that Ningen Manga Productions is taking care of all clearance issues on Women's Studies ahead of time. The short and skinny of this is that a distributor won't have to shell out the cash and manpower to make sure everything in the film is allowed to be there. They don't want anybody coming out of the woodwork saying, "Hey, they shot on my farm/used my music/featured my logo on that guy's T-Shirt without my permission! Give me some money!" Clearance issues can be deal-breakers especially with the more established distributors. Smaller guys often don't care, but again, if the film starts to get some success, people may come around looking for lawsuit dollars.

Is it an unlikely scenario? Sure, but what harm is there in insuring that it's an impossible scenario? I'd like to be able to tell a potential distributor, "Everything is in order. All you have to do is review the documents."

The last problem with just showing up and shooting is that a location has to be more than just where the action takes place. I'm a big believer that environment is a character in the show. I want to be able to tap into every resource a location has to offer, so I can make the best film possible. This isn't done by sneaking around, but by working with the people who live in and use the location. They can point out nuances that I may miss.

The ideal "Ross-Prentiss" location will be one that's isolated, foreboding, yet beautiful. It'll have a sense of being old and mystical, almost as if the place itself is alive somehow. I know it's out there, and it can't wait for us to get there. Finding it is just a matter of time.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

"The Horror, The Horror"

In light of some recent production hiccups, specifically trouble finding suitable locations willing to let us film portions of Women's Studies, a friend of mine chastised me for promoting the film as a straight horror movie. His argument is that by doing so, I sell the film, and by proxy myself, short by pigeonholing it. As the writer and director (a biased source if ever there was one), I concede his point. To me, Women's Studies spans over many genres. It's a character drama, a coming of age story, and a tragic romance. It's got action and laughs as well as scares and blood.

However, the overriding emotion (if I do my job as a director right) should be one of unease and discomfort. One of my most primary goals with Women's Studies is to simply scare the audience. That's really where I can make no concession because I AM setting out to make a horror film. Anyone who reads the Women's Studies script without being told what genre the film is will realize pretty quickly what they're in for. While not strictly a blood and guts type of horror film, the Karo will definitely flow heavily in the finished film.

The strange problem I've run into is despite all the talk of "mainstream" or Hollywood" horror, the genre is still a fringe genre, an acquired taste, and let's face it, the red-headed stepchild of the movie industry. Film studios, notably the big ones, don't really like making horror films. Most critics don't like them, and they don't win any awards that matter to the big dogs. Plus, though the horror move protests of the early 80s are ancient history, you still have media pundits like Bill O'Reilly spouting off about how these films represent "the degradation of the morals of America." And while I believe that kind of thinking is obnoxious and misses the point, I'm certainly not going to argue for the socially redeeming values of Saw III.

Ah, but since I brought it up, let's take a closer look at Saw III, the subject of O'Reilly's recent tirade, a film that was critically derided, and one unlikely to get nominated for an Oscar or a Golden Globe. However, there is one more notable aspect about the film that explains the reason why the movie industry continues it's loveless affair with the horror movie: It made a killing of money at the box office, $33 million in the first weekend alone.

Let's do the math: Saw III was budgeted at $10 million. In it's first week of release it made it's producer, Lions Gate Films, a 300% profit. Currently, it's earned a worldwide gross of around $130 million. ($80 million domesticly and $50 million worldwide, if you want to get specific.) That's a $120 million profit which isn't taking into consideration DVD sales and rentals which make up the majority (75%) of a major studios profits. Even if you assume that the $10 million budget doubles with DVD marketing and distribution costs, that's still a film which sits firmly in the black.

(For the record, I've seen none of the Saw movies. Laugh if you want, but I'm very squeamish, and torture movies make me want to pass out.)

So, why do big studios keep making horror movies? Simple: They even out their bottom line. As far as Lion's Gate is concerned, Saw III's success makes up for the fact that Employee of the Month and Crank only made (ONLY!!!) $28 million. Actually, both films were budgeted at $12 million each and, hence, made money. Still, that's a $32 million profit from both movies combined compared to Saw III's $120 million profit.

I'll quit beating you over the head with it. The point is that "moral degradation" or not, there's a huge audience for horror. As long as that audience is willing to keep ponying up the cash to see these movies, big studios and major filmmakers will keep making them. The producers behind the Saw movies said before it's release that Saw III was likely to be the last one. Keep in mind that the fourth movie in the Friday the 13th series was subtitled, "The Final Chapter." The upcoming Friday "re-imagining" (Don't even get me started there.) will be the twelfth film of the franchise.

But let's forget about the big studios for a minute. Women's Studies is not being produced by a big studio. And frankly, when it comes to actually producing good horror films, big studios really aren't where the action is. Most horror films that are "studio releases" are actually produced by smaller independent film companies. (In industry terms, it's called "negative pick-up.") Recent examples include: Hard Candy, Wolf Creek, and what a lot of horror fans are calling the best fright flick in years, The Descent. (Which I still haven't seen because the sad joke is that when you're trying to make a movie you don't really have time to watch them.)

Forget those even. Let's take a look at what are considered the classic horror films:

Psycho: Independently produced by Hitchcock who went outside the studio system to get it made. Paramount originally distributed it in 1960, and Universal bought up the rights for a successful late sixties re-release.

Night of the Living Dead: Independently produced by George A. Romero's Image Ten. The original distributor let the copyright expire somehow and the film entered the public domain. This also happened with The Wizard of Oz and It's a Wonderful Life. However, Romero claims the original distributor "ripped him off" when they didn't put a copyright notice on any prints of the film that went out. This seems sketchy to me, but copyright law was much different in 1968 than it is now. Back then, copyrights expired after 50 years instead of 95. The math doesn't quite work out though, so your guess is as good as mine. I do know that Romero only has received residuals from the 1998 Elite Media release of NOTLD. The other estimated $50 million the film has grossed since 1968 has all been pocketed by other distributors. Seriously, if you want to make some money, burn off a bunch of copies of NOTLD and sell them. It's perfectly legal. Fucked up, but true.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the original 1974 version, not the remake): Independently produced by some mysterious outfit called "Vortex" which I can only assume was director Tobe Hooper's production company. It was picked up by New Line Cinema, which at the time, was a tiny distributor out of New York. The story is that the film played in limited release in San Francisco and Warren Beatty went apeshit over the brutal realism giving the film huge buzz.

Halloween: Independently produced by Trancas International who I also believe handled the original theatrical distribution. It was one of those cases where a distributor decided they wanted to go into the business of production as well. The late Moustapha Akkad was spending $300,000 a day on a big, desert war epic that ultimately tanked. When told Halloween's entire budget would cost $300,000, he said, "What the hell?"

Friday the 13th: Independently produced by Georgetown Pictures, picked up and distributed by Paramount. Technically though, I suppose it was "studio financed." Director, Sean Cunningham, who had produced Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes with Wes Craven, took out an ad in Variety for a film called Friday the 13th and billed it as "the most horrifying film ever made." The funny part is that he had no script, not even a story idea except that he wanted to rip off the success of Halloween. Georgetown called him up the next day and offered to finance the picture.

Evil Dead: Sam Raimi himself raised the money by hitting up dentists which has since become a common low budget fundraising method. New line, which was apparently the Lion's Gate of the late 70s and early 80s, picked it up after Raimi got a glowing review by none other than Stephen King. Like Trancas, they soon turned around and moved into actual film production by making:

A Nightmare on Elm Street: I include it as independently produced because long before Lord of the Rings, New Line didn't have a pot to piss in when they went into production on Elm Street. They're still referred to as "The house that Freddy Krueger built."

Not one of the films I mentioned above was financed or made by a major studio, yet they're some of the most well known, and most financially successful horror films in film history. (However, it may be worth noting that the most financially, and some would argue critically, successful horror film of all time, The Exorcist, was financed, produced and released by a major film studio, Warner Bros.)

My final point is this: Most of the successes in the horror genre have come from independent film producers like me. The reason is that we're not doing it to pump up our bottom line. We're doing it because we love the genre and we believe that these stories, as "morally degrading" as they may be, are worth telling, and more importantly worth being heard. By billing Women's Studies as a horror film, I'm hoping to find individuals to help me get it made that are like minded, that truly support what we're trying to do. It's not necessarily an easy sell, but it's the right one.