Filmmaker Profile: Mark Blackman

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I have here another MFF alumni, Mark Blackman, whom I met at his MFF screening of WELCOME TO HARLEM – his indie musical feature that picked up the Best Musical award from that festival and a variety of others.  I call it an award magnet.  A phenomenally orchestrated work, vibrant and fun, I had to program it into the Fall series and profile his work because it’s just flat out fantastic. Here’s what Mark had to say about WELCOME TO HARLEM:

Direct Link:

Filmmaker Profile: Matt August

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Matt August is a successful Broadway Director who is currently organizing the next incarnation of the Broadway version of HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS.  I came across his work by way of his film debut HOW TO GET TO CANDYBAR – a short film that I discovered when it screened at the 2012 Manhattan Film Festival.

When NewFilmmakers gave me the opportunity to program their fall series, Matt’s film was one of the MFF selections I checked to see if it had been submitted to the series. Indeed it had and I was happy to have included it as one of the opening films of FallFest 2012.  The film will screen on October 3rd at 7:30pm at the Anthology Film Archives in the East Village. If you’re in NYC and want something fun to do, then this is definitely your show.  Additionally, this portion of the evening is family friendly so children are welcome!

Hope you can make it!

Direct Link to profile: http://youtu.be/6GCZCFXo5yk

-E

Q&A with Glenn Camhi (dir) THE BUNGLERS

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The Bunglers One SheetTHE BUNGLERS is a movie that I happened to catch at this year’s Manhattan Film Festival (2012).  It is phenomenally funny with high production value.  A medium length short, the film has pulled in a number of well deserved awards.  The movie is directed by filmmaker Glenn Camhi. The movie stood out to me, not just for production value, but writing, acting and it just seemed to be a well organized indie film production all around.  I’m not the only one who has noticed the film, after all, look at all the laurels on the one-sheet poster. At last count, 17 and probably more will be added by the end of 2012.  Speaking of which, I’m happy to find out that The Bunglers will be closing the 2012 Boston Film Festival and so I thought it was time to do a Q&A with Glenn, on his background, the making of his film and what he went through to get the movie to the audience.

Production:

FilmAnthropology (FA):  That hardest part for most filmmakers is actually getting going, so if you can, please tell me how your project came to be and how long was it from conception, through development and after you were ready to shoot, what was the process and timeline for “getting your act together” and actually making it happen?

Glenn Camhi (GC):  The germ of THE BUNGLERS came to me, like most story ideas, while jogging to music. A Gipsy Kings song inspired the image of a beautiful flamenco dancer getting the best of two guys trying to shoot her, despite having nothing at hand but a pair of maracas and a cymbal. It made me laugh, and I tucked it away. A week later I heard Lena Horne’s killer rendition of “It Had Better Be Tonight,” and a vision of that same dancer appeared, this time trying to seduce one of the guys with the song. I couldn’t figure out why she’d be doing that, but I had to know. Thus the story was born.

Once I sat down to write, it went fast. I’d been saving up to make a short for about 7 years, long before I had the idea. Just wanted to be ready to do it right. Directing features I’ve written is where I’m headed, so this short is my calling card.

It took a year total from script to screen. The longest periods were prep/crew gathering, and post. I wanted a top notch crew, so coordinating schedules with all their shows and movies took some doing. But it allowed my dynamite lead actress a couple months of flamenco training. Post took all summer, in large part because to save money I had to master the art and science of color grading and visual effects, neither of which I’d ever done. Great fun. Really just another stage of the writing process, to me.

The biggest challenge was finding our main location, a nightclub where most of the action goes down. Due to some tricky negotiations, we only nailed it down 2 days before production! But it was perfect — a historic venue that had been closed a quarter century but was about to reopen the week after we shot. Best of all, its dimensions happened to fall within a few inches of the unusual nightclub I made up and had drawn in my animatic storyboards.

Apart from cast, getting my DP was the biggest step that got things rolling. I’d met the super-talented Stephan Dalyai before, and we hit it off with very similar taste in cinematography. He loved the script, and when I started telling him which color palettes and lenses I had in mind for the different characters, he was finishing my sentences with the same thoughts, even though none of it was in the script. We have a terrific working relationship.

For some strange reason, everyone around me had more confidence than I did early on, so finding suckers — er, talented cast and crew — to go along with and enhance my vision was surprisingly easy.  I loved and would work with them again in a heartbeat.  I couldn’t have done it without my fellow producers Kyle Fischer and Samm Barnes. Amazing people, on and off set. Even seasoned crew members said it was the most delightful set they’d worked on, which made me as happy as the final film itself.

Tyler always hits her mark

Tyler always hits her mark.

FA: How do you develop your characters and how involved are your actors in the development of the characters.

GC:  I do a lot of work developing my characters, working out their backstories and often writing faux interviews or conversations with them. I need to know where they came from, what music they listen to, what they do in their off time and obviously, what drives and inhibits them — and why.

But then I cast carefully, and trust my actors to take their characters and run with them. I offer my written backstories early on if they want them (and they do), but once they really dig in, it’s their turn to discover who they really are.

I love working with actors who have solid improv chops. I encourage improvisation during some table reads, which can lead to rewrites. On set, I run what’s written first, then often ask them to “play” with certain bits if they wish. I figure that by the time we’re shooting, they’ve lived in their characters’ skins more deeply than I have and truth comes naturally. As diligently as I planned, many of my favorite moments in the film are bits I never envisioned. I’m open to anything that works better for the story than what I originally wrote alone at my desk — whether from the actors, the camera crew, or really anyone.

Glenn Camhi and Tyler McClain

Glenn Camhi directing the incredibly talented lead actress Tyler McClain in the climatic shootout scene.

FA: Casting process – do you write for actors you already know/have a rapport with or do you audition for each character?

GC: I often have an actor in mind when writing, whether a star I’d never get but who helps me visualize the character, or an actor with whom I have a rapport or think I could cast. In the case of THE BUNGLERS, I wrote the two male leads (Danny and Luther) specifically for the brilliant Stephen Kearin and Floyd VanBuskirk. I’d been fans of their stage work for years and have worked with them doing improv. Their characters are nothing like them, but I knew they’d knock it out of the park.

A wonderful actress I know was my muse when writing the lead female, Isabella, but she was unavailable. When Tyler McClain walked through the door during our open casting call, it took 10 seconds for my fellow producers and I to recognize she was our Isabella. She simply lit up the room. That night I listened to that Gipsy Kings song again and could only picture her in the role.

I had no one in mind for our villain, Joe Danzer. I asked a great actor I know, Brian Lohmann, to help out with the initial table read so I could hear the script on its feet before polishing, and 2 lines in, I saw my Joe Danzer. At the end of the read, fortunately he asked me if I’ve cast the role yet and if he could have it.

Danny and Luther take aim

Danny and Luther take aim.

Background and Education and Future Projects:

FA: Can you tell me about your experience at the AFI Conservatory? What did you take from it?

GC: I went to AFI for screenwriting. Best thing I got out of it was the visiting filmmaker series. Unlike the usual PR stops that writers, directors and producers do when press is around, they gave us utterly candid reports of their entire process. For example, the brilliant Ed Zwick showed us scenes he’d severed from his then-latest great film that he knew were godawful and would never again see the light of day — just to show us that even when you’re at the top of your game you can make big mistakes during writing or production phases, but that a good filmmaker recognizes what works and what doesn’t in the editing bay. It was most reassuring.

FA: What’s your next project and what will you do the same and/or differently from this – or: what did you learn from making THE BUNGLERS that will motivate you to do something different on your next project?

GC:  Either of two features is up next, whichever anyone wants to back me on first! Both are similar to THE BUNGLERS in that they’re comedies with some action, but they differ notably in story and tone. One’s crazy dark, but with a sweet love story at its core (actually, a couple love stories), the other is more straightforward comedy with a satirical edge. After those, I have a semi-futuristic balls-to-the-wall action pic I’d love to do.

Two things I’ll do differently: I won’t schedule a 10-day shoot for 6 days! And I’ll devote more time to prep with my department heads. We were rushed for budgetary reasons. I’m big on efficiency, but not so big on rushing.

One thing I’ll do the same that I never thought I’d do: produce. Loved it. Hadn’t known my brain works that way.


Festival Submission Process:

the bunglers - climax scene setup 1 photo by juan goossens

Climax scene setup 1
Photo by Juan Goossens

FA:  What was your experience with film festivals before making this film?

GC:  I’d only been to some festival screenings prior, never taken the time to do a whole festival before. Stupid, really.  They’re a blast.

FA:  Did you find getting The Bunglers into the festival circuit to be difficult, expensive, stressful or the complete opposite?

GC:  I wasn’t sure we’d get into any festivals, given that most programmers prefer shorts under 10 or 15 minutes so they can pack more into a 90 minute block. It’s unfortunate, though it makes some sense. Moreover, it’s especially hard for a longish comedy, since most festivals that will program longer shorts tend to reserve those slots for films they feel are “meatier.” Not always, but usually.

I knew this going in, but as much as I want people to see and enjoy THE BUNGLERS, I didn’t make it primarily for festivals. This was the story that excited me enough to shoot. I wanted to tell a story with multiple twists, believable romance and shifting character relationships, which you just can’t do in 5-10 minutes. I prefer comedy that stems from character. The biggest laughs and applause THE BUNGLERS gets is during a silent, stationary 18-second shot of 2 characters merely looking at each other. It works because we’ve gotten to know their characters sufficiently. I’ve seen some fantastic, clever short shorts, but I tend to prefer those that take the time to delve more into character and story, with some breathing room.

I was pleasantly surprised when the acceptance emails started coming in… and even more so when we started winning major awards. Especially after a handful of early rejections. I did find we got more traction with festivals once we got a little notice. I wish I’d strategized more accordingly.

It’s expensive and stressful, but the stress is far outweighed by the unparalleled joy of getting to sit in a theater listening to a packed house of strangers laugh, gasp and clap in all the right places — plus a few you hadn’t anticipated.
FA:  What surprised you about the festival submission system? 

GC:  Mainly that it’s a full time job!  Just researching the approximately 1.4 billion festivals out there to discern which are worthwhile and good potential fits, and accept films of your length/type, and don’t conflict with other festival’s premiere requirements, yet don’t have completion date deadlines that disqualify you from next year, etc., is a job. My spreadsheets had spreadsheets.

Then there’s the constant redesign of all your promotional materials as you get screenings and awards. You become a one-stop graphic design house, PR firm, web guru and post office supporter.

I was deeply disappointed to discover some major festivals rely on selection viewers who have nothing whatsoever to do with filmmaking. One Academy-accredited festival I won’t name uses a law student, a political science professor, a couple folks who’ve worked on corporate videos, and someone who blogs about her diets and would love to write a screenplay someday. Seriously. How woefully disrespectful of our hard work and submission fees.

But most festivals care, and do it right.

FA:  What festivals stood out for your so far, as being on par with your expectations or above your expectations?

GC:  I could say something great about each of them so far. All the festival directors I’ve met and spoken with are wonderfully passionate about what they do, and just want to help the filmmakers and to bring new films to eager audiences. Love them.

The folks at the Action On Film Int’l Film Festival stood out for going out of their way to help promote films and filmmakers — even the shorts, which not all fests do. They do local tv interviews with filmmakers weeks before the fest, which they edit and give you to use. And if you win an award, they do a live reporter interview with you fresh off the podium, which they also give you. (The interview, not the podium.) Del Weston really makes you feel welcome, from the moment they receive your submission to long after the festival’s over.

The Central Florida Film Festival was also wonderfully organized. As you arrive at the official hotel, you’re knee deep in the festival: a flatscreen tv in the lobby is playing trailers for the features and shorts 24 hours a day, there are social/networking events every night, and posters advertising films are constantly projected onscreen between screenings. Bob and Ginger Cook are ever-present and there to help.

I especially love the fests that do Q&As for shorts. Few do. It’s wonderful for both the filmmakers and the audiences. I’ve gotten something major out of every one I’ve done and seen.

The Bunglers - Isabella and the band

Isabella and the band

FA: What’s next for THE BUNGLERS?

GC:  The great Boston Film Festival is up next: Sept 20-24.  I’m so honored that my film is playing on closing night — one of just three shorts to do so.  Plus, it’s my onetime hometown, so I’m excited as hell to go back.  Also this weekend is a festival we were invited to on the spot without submitting, when the festival director saw us at Action On Film: the Movieville Int’l. Film Festival in Sarasota, FL.

Then it’s the Ft. Lauderdale Int’l. Film Festival in October (Florida, that’s fest #3, we love you too!), and Costa Rica Int’l. Film Festival in November.  That’s our 10th festival, not including a few we were finalists with but didn’t screen at.  And we’re still waiting to hear from a few more.

All screening details at http://www.thebunglersmovie.com/screenings/.

Festival Submission

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I’ve been meaning for some time, to write a blog about what I’ve learned about the festival system over the past two years since I began submitting Caroline of Virginia to the festival circuit. It’s been tough getting this movie screened, mainly because of its awkward running time, but also it was clearly shot and completed without a budget, on a completely volunteer basis.  The filmmaker of the independent film The Waterhole comments in his blog that “the festival submission process is the filmmaking equivalent to the lottery.  Worse actually, because at least all lottery ticket buyers are playing on the same level. “. With that said, I still wake up astonished that we managed to pick up an award for it, considering we were up against $20,000 micro-budget shorts shot on cameras such as the Alexa and the Red.  To beat out our peers with an HDV shot 37 minute NYC fairy tale with edgy political and human statements, well, it really gets me going in the morning.  In some ways its better than coffee.

One mistake I made that I will not do again is that I began submitting Caroline to festivals before the film was finished, as a work in progress. Not many, but a few who insisted that if your “WIP” is generally close to what the final will be, then they would take the submission seriously. We didn’t get into any of those.  You have to understand that Caroline is not my first film, but the first that I truly thought was worth investing in and the festival submission fees certainly added up to a substantial investment.  Moving on, I proceeded to submit the picture lock as a  “Lock with ‘WIP’ audio”, meaning that our sound design was still a work in progress but everything else is there. With the exception of NewFilmmakers New York, this didn’t fly and no one else would take it. One festival had a “same day rejection” and another within 48 hours.  I will likely never submit to those festivals again (and these were noteworthy events, one out of Chicago and the other in New Jersey).  The funny part is, the WIP audio wasn’t that bad.  NewFilmmakers even screened the film with work in progress audio and the audience loved it.  They were truly reacting to the story.  We didn’t finished the sound design until our third screening at the Tribeca Grand’s “After Set” series and believe it or not, there really wasn’t much of a difference, except that some of the more subtle sounds were better mixed.

This week the final sound mix for Lipstick Lies will be finished and I’m happy to say that I’ve resisted the urge to submit the “picture lock with ‘WIP’ audio” to festivals.  It clearly didn’t work out with COV and I feel as if my submission funds could have been better spent had I waited for the sound to actually have been completed. In addition I did very little research on the festivals I was submitting to. A few things I’ve learned is that you absolutely should, if money is an object for you, review the previous three years worth of programming that a festival has exhibited before submitting. Understand which films they selected to screen, which made the final rounds of selection but weren’t screened and which films won awards.  If possible, try to gauge why certain films picked up awards.  Another option is to go to the event first and then submit next year.  I did this with a couple festivals over the course of the summer.  Some of them I decided I would submit to next year, others were not what they seemed to be at all and their programming was clearly not on par with what I was looking for. This is important because their website and their press coverage conveyed the opposite of the truth. So yes, if you have the opportunity to attend a version of the event first, I would highly recommend it.

Another mistake I made was that I blindly submitted to the festivals from the WithoutABox suggestion list, which I believe they send by e-mail every week or so. These are usually top brand festivals like Sundance, Tribeca, Slamdance and so forth. These festivals are a pain in the ass to get into because they’re not just considering programming that’s submitted through paying filmmakers, but they’re also going out on their own and hunting for star studded Hollywood films. Nevermind that they’re on a WAB “hey submit to these” list which other fools, like me, are going to be like “okay!” but they have feelers already out there, making backroom deals to screen films with successful talent.  Look at Tribeca, for example, in that they screened “The Five Year Engagement” starring Jason Segel and a variety of other stars. This is a film that had distribution in place already and in my opinion had absolutely no reason to be in a film festival. Film festivals are meant to discover new films, new talent and new storytellers.  As a filmmaker, a programmer and a blogger of film, this is a FACT that I absolutely have to call festivals out on when they start to pull this kind of jive.  Evidently, Tribeca closed last year’s festival with a screening of “The Avengers” as one final insult to the people like me who were actually dumb enough to pay the submission fees for our truly independent films.  Let’s also not forget the fact that they have the 1985 hit film The Goonies on their 2012 program as well.

I did not keep silent about this either, in that I had sent e-mails to all of the programmers to let them know exactly how I felt about such a decision.  I also asked for my submission fee back but never received it.  Whilst I have no doubt I’ve burned my bridge with the event, I can only hope that my warning to new and emerging filmmakers about submitting to these organizations isn’t taken with a grain of salt.  Perhaps if we stopped taking them seriously, they’ll start taking us seriously.  It’s a true problem and can only be resolved when filmmakers stop participating in such silliness.  The only suggestion I recommend for filmmakers that don’t have star studded micro or medium budget films is to not submit to these festivals period. In fact, if your film does well enough, let them come to you. If your movie truly is what they want, they’ll often invite filmmakers to screen and this is just about the only way to get into one of these festivals apart from having a budget and names attached, or receiving a review in a notable publication with national reach.

For the upcoming Lipstick Lies submission process, my approach in finding events is going to be based on three vital, non-negotiable components:

1. Submission fee | all submission fees have to be below a certain amount for the festival’s “regular” deadline and I will make every effort to only submit to “early” deadlines when possible. At this time I will not disclose the maximum amount I am allocating to spend, since this could reveal my personal financial situation, which is no one’s business, however, I will say that if their early and regular deadlines are above this amount, there’s something sketchy going on.  Most legit festivals shouldn’t depend on their submission fees to finance the event.  In addition I’ve found that WithoutABox, the only online submission platform on the internet that festivals are willing to use (because it’s owned by IMDB/Amazon) charges festivals a hefty flat fee if they want to have “free to submit” categories.  I learned this when I tried including one of my screening series events on the the site and wanted to accept open submissions without charging fees to the filmmakers.  This is why you will likely never find a ‘free’ festival on their site – they actually punish festivals for this!  I find its easier to good “free to submit to festivals” and browse any lists that come up.  They exist, they just won’t be listed on IMDB or WithoutABox.

2. Location of festival |I find that many of my films are New York centric and while the stories can be enjoyed by audiences nationwide (and in some urbanized areas, globally), I’ve found that with a story that is so heavily intertwined with NYC culture, history and people, that festivals in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, all cities that in some way or another compete with New York for business, art and culture, tend to turn down the film.  So far all of the festivals COV has screened in, have been in Manhattan. LL is a film that is both set in New York and Hawaii, so this opens up the playing field a tiny bit, but not by much. I’d be interested to see what happens and whether or not my filming and story locations truly makes a difference.

3. Previous three years selection list | You can’t learn a lot about the programmers from their biographies or the films they may have been involved with previously (many programmers are also filmmakers).  The bios you get online is a form of controlled output – sometimes misleading and they certainly don’t give you the whole picture. They are resumes, so to speak, and without an interview and follow up interview, you wouldn’t hire them, right? So why would you offer them $60 to watch your film based on such little information?  One sure way you can learn of their tastes is by reviewing the films that they previously awarded screenings to in the past, by going down the list of past programs.  This is time consuming and often stressful.  Sometimes its difficult when festivals roll over their programmers (which is often done by bigger festivals to keep their tastes unpredictable ‘fresh’).  At times you get depressed because you might find an enormous amount of good material that you’ll feel you will never compete with, or such horrible material that you are positive they’ll never see your film for the gem that it is.  Regardless, this is the single most important thing you can do to achieve higher chances of being selected for a screening.

So far I’ve only submitted LL to one festival as a work in progress, because the submission deadline was coming up and there was no submission fee.  All I had to lose was a USPS Priority Stamp, which I’ve got plenty of.  Beyond that I have not submitted it anywhere, regardless of how much I wanted to.  As far as that festival goes, I have not heard back yet, ‘nor have they announced their official selections so I shall keep my fingers crossed and hope at marsec level 1!

Our preview screening at Tribeca Grand and upcoming premiere at the Anthology Film Archives was by arrangement with the coordinators.  This is possible because I understand their programming, they understand my work and they are both rolling screening series which means there is plenty of room to work with in fitting films in.  This brings me to another point: Screening series.  Often people just starting out (and some experienced filmmakers) are unaware of the differences between a festival and a series.  A festival is an event held annually with a very select number of films chosen to represent the festival in that year’s program.  Often the films go along with a pre-decided theme that they have not disclosed to the filmmakers who are submitting.  A series is a rolling event, that happens either weekly, monthly or seasonally.  With an on-going series there is much more room to program and so your chances of getting screened increase dramatically.  Many film series’ have roll-over policies where if they cannot fit your submission into the next series, they’ll roll it over to the one after and so forth.  While some of them say they roll over, but don’t, many who say this actually honor the policy.  As a submitter, I’ve established a personal policy that I will not submit to a screening series that doesn’t have a “roll over” policy.  It doesn’t make sense not to have it, in my professional and personal opinion.  Most of the more notable screening series’ are in New York City, but others are emerging on the left coast as well.  I suggest you take a look at them.

-E