Thursday, April 29, 2010


This film is a period piece, taking place in 2004, and we've been pretty stringent about avoiding anachronisms, with one exception. That exception is the presence of Immortal Defense, Paul Eres's astonishing 2007 tower defense game (it's definitely worth the $9.99, but if you're unsure, download the free demo-- it's over thirty levels). With Paul's kind permission, we wrote his game into our script. Today we shot that scene.

Sometimes, the appearance of one work of art nestled within another makes perfect sense. Look at, for example, Reign Over Me; Shadow of the Colossus, and its motifs/imagery of collapsing giants, fits perfectly within the context of Sandler's 9/11 trauma.

Olivia Forever!! and Immortal Defense don't quite fit in that way; thematically, our little bauble and Paul's philosophical/metaphysical science fiction are miles apart. But in the scene itself, a comparison is made between Olivia and the game. It's not a particularly deep comparison-- it doesn't reveal anything new about the character-- but it carries tremendous significance for the character making the comparison, becomes a cherished memory, a part of their story, a token of love.

There's been some fresh hullabaloo about whether or not games are art. And while that's never been a question for me, while I've always come down squarely on the Art side of the argument, I can say that one characteristic of art is that it is potentially transformative: it can transform us, or be transformed by us, given a significance in our lives that even its creators might not have intended. Mary and Tom first met, first spoke, first bonded over a mutual appreciation of Taxi Driver-- hardly a romantic film, but one that is forever tied to our story and our lives, just as Immortal Defense will always be part of Tedward's and Olivia's, a totem to a time and a feeling, lush and sensuous, bursting with colour and light and possibility.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

OLIVIA FOREVER!!: The Halloween Party.

On Friday, we got another twenty seconds in the can. If that doesn't sound particularly promising, well, it is and it isn't.

The shoot in question was for a cut-away gag. The movie's going along, a scene's in progress, someone mentions something that gets us into this scene, scene does it's thing (ha!), and we're back to the original scene. We have a couple of these sorts of gags planned, one of which involves a Sasquatch we're still in the process of trying to acquire without spending too much money.

That's a tricky thing, actually: part of how we can justify making films of perhaps limited commercial appeal is that we make it out of our own pocket, and part of how we can justify making films out of our own pocket when we don't have that much in our pocket to begin with is that we make our films cheaply and quickly. We pride ourselves on being the scrappy low-budget filmmakers. Our most expensive film to date cost under five hundred dollars. And so we can't in good conscience justify spending almost as much for a Sasquatch costume that's going to have at most thirty seconds of screen-time, even if perhaps those thirty seconds would be worth it.

The shoot we had on Friday, this cut-away gag Halloween Party shoot, hardly cost us anything in terms of dough (which, of course, we like) but did take a lot of preparation and planning and coordinating of schedules. Our actors aren't getting paid for their work and have day jobs; finding a day that two actors have in common for a rehearsal and shoot is sometimes a chore. Finding a day when a third can join them can be nearly impossible. Having learned this lesson in the past, we like to write around "guest stars"-- limiting most actors to one really good scene. See, for example, Son of a Seahorse, where we did this extensively.

But this film, and this scene, aren't really amenable to that approach. For the Halloween Party to be convincing, we needed it to look like a party. And so, in addition to our two leads, we had planned on seven background characters. I'm not going to call them "extras", because it's vaguely dehumanizing. And, having worked on a few horror sets as an extra, I can vouch that most directors treated me and my fellow extras like cattle, flesh-and-blood cogs in place to realize their vision. And if I ever treat a fellow human being like that, I hope someone punches me in the God-damn face.

So: background characters. Seven of them. We even had a bio in mind for each, what their relationships were with one another, et cetera. Not because the viewer would pick any of that up-- it is, again, only a twenty second shot, with the focus squarely on the two leads-- but because it would give the actors something to do rather than stand there bored out of their wits.

I confirmed the day before the shoot with some of them and the day of the shoot with the others. One I saw in person less than two hours before the shoot. You can probably see where this is going: of the seven, only two showed up. We were so disheartened that we didn't give our two background actors their bios, as it's a little hard to explain a web of relationships between just two people.

We, of course, made due, as that's what you have to do when you're the scrappy low-budget filmmaker. We even put Tom in the shot, his face obscured by a Virtual Boy, so that we'd have a third background character. Because we're a two person crew, this necessitated balancing the boom mike rather precariously on a light-stand. We shot about a dozen takes in about as many minutes, turned out the shop-lights and watched one of those aforementioned horror movies in which the lowly extras were treated so poorly. Everyone seemed to have a good time, and when we were done, we had twenty seconds of footage.

And over the weekend, we were faced with that fact-- we had expended a lot of time and energy for twenty seconds of footage. We have a shoot coming up on Wednesday that might net us another thirty, maybe forty. We're lucky if we get a shoot a week-- usually something comes up with one actor or another and we have a week or two with nothing. And so getting these tiny little fragments for a feature-length film, well, it's a little maddening, no doubt about it. It's a long ways from Seahorse, where we'd typically shoot ten or fifteen minutes at a time.

At the same time, we're kinda consciously trying to shoot all this small stuff now so that it makes it into the film. We've been working on this film for so long that we just want to be done with it; if we shot all the major (i.e., long) scenes, we might just declare the film done before we've shot the little piecemeal stuff. We'll say, "Well, we don't really need it", and maybe we really don't. I mean, you don't really need anything-- there's always a way to make it work, and one should always be flexible.

We don't need a Halloween party cut-away gag, and we don't need a Sasquatch, but at the same time they add something to the film, and they're things that we want. By shooting them now, with all these other, bigger, more necessary scenes still ahead of us, we ensure that they don't get lost in our eventual frustration and apathy.

At the same time, we want to cut down on that frustration and apathy, and so we're aiming to alternate some of these little shoots with some bigger ones. And maybe even doing two shoots a week, if we can.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Four Things I Noticed About HATARI!

Somehow, Tom had gone his entire life without ever seeing Hatari!, the 1962 Howard Hawks film, something which his Mary, who had seen the film several times, remedied this evening. It's a remarkable film, one that I look forward to seeing many, many times in the future. But four things stuck out during this first viewing, those being:

-- How episodic the film is. While each scene and sequence definitely exists in the context of the others, you don't get the sense of some arbitrary over-arching thing or some sort of threat; there's no headlong rush towards some kind of final confrontation. The film ends when the hunting season ends. There's a lot of attention to process, and I wonder how many procedurals, police and otherwise, would benefit from a more episodic structure.

-- Also, how languid the film is. It's two-and-a-half hours, takes its time, is unhurried. It reminds me of something Capra once said about It Happened One Night, which had opened as a flop both critically and commercially before slowly building word-of-mouth: "People found the film longer than usual and, surprise, funnier, much funnier than usual. But, biggest surprise of all, they could remember in detail a good deal of what went on in the film and they found that everybody else did and that it was great fun talking about this and that scene. And let's go see it again and take the Johnsons." I think films that are longer than usual are funnier, more exciting, and more memorable than usual because they are long. The extra time gives you more of a sense of the characters, of the setting, gives you a greater feel for the work.

-- That said, there are some characters that I'd like to have a little less time with. After the first ninety minutes or so, Red Buttons start to wear awfully thin.

-- And somewhere around the ninety minute mark, the film transforms from lots-of-manly-action plus comedy to lots-of-comedy plus manly action, and, the gratingness of Red Buttons aside, I had no problem with this shift. In fact, it felt right, and part of that I think has to do with qualities number one and two-- how episodic and long the film is. Those qualities give the film the freedom to shift gears, to build in another direction. It's not merely a matter of "mixing" genres, of shoehorning one into another, but of shifting them smoothly, of creating enough room for something else.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Stumbling Towards "Brand".

Like a lot of filmmakers who got into this crazy, quixotic enterprise with art, as opposed to commerce, in mind, we've struggled with the m-word. No, not that m-word. The other m-word. Marketing.

And though one of us recently affixed his name to what some could term an anti-marketing screed, it must be said that we've never really been against marketing. It's an important tool, a means to an end, that end being, butts in the seats or, more accurately, DVDs in players.

Last year, we released two of our films on DVD. The Great Russell Self-Distribution Experiment of 2009 was, in no uncertain terms, a disaster. We weren't expecting to turn a profit, or even frankly to break even-- at a three dollar royalty per disc, we'd have to have sold a lot of discs to even come close. For us, success was designated as, getting the films out there to people instead of continuing to create in a vacuum. Creating in a vacuum is the most frustrating, most alienating thing, and we wanted to break out of that. Having sold less than a dozen discs between two films in the space of a year, I would say that we're still in that vacuum.

A big part of this, I think, was a failure of marketing. There are a lot of indie filmmakers out there, like us, toiling away in obscurity, like us, pestering critics and bloggers to watch their films, like us, having nothing to show for it, like us. And they're using Createspace, just like we are, and sending everyone the more "legitimate" Amazon link, just like we did, and hoping that they'll plop down "X" number of dollars on an unknown entity.

And, being on twitter and frequenting various indie blogs, I've been on the other side of this-- I've followed the link to that Amazon page, read the description, glanced at the cover, and said, "Maybe" instead of "Yes." And to be honest with ourselves, if we had no knowledge of our films, if we were just following a link and looking at the cover, we would have "maybe'd" ourselves.

And so, the first goal of The Great Russell Self-Distribution Experiment, 2010 Edition, is to correct that. We want to remove "maybe" from the equation. We might not get "yes"-- after all, this isn't exactly a booming economy we're living in-- but we'll settle for "I'm adding this to my list".

Part of this involves getting some reviewers to pay attention to our stuff-- something we're getting slightly (if only slightly!) better at. Part involves making sure the marketing materials are eye-catching, distinctive, attractive, and memorable-- something which, as you're about to see, I think we have gotten better at. And part of it involves creating/defining our "brand"-- and, yes, I did throw up in my mouth a little just typing that, and, yes, we feel queasy talking about ourselves as some kind of commodity someone's about to synergize through an aggressive new media paradigm. But if we're going to be successful at all this time around-- not necessarily financially successful, as even at our most optimistic I don't see us turning a profit from filmmaking in the near future, but in terms of introducing eyeballs to films-- it's going to be through promoting not individual films but a body of work by two idiosyncratic but capable artisans.

We hope/feel that our new approach will encompass all of these aspects, and, acting according to the theory that seeing all the wires makes the trick charming and true instead of irritating and false, we'd like to explain point-by-point how we're trying to address these goals through our DVD cover design for the new editions of The Man Who Loved and Son of a Seahorse, which should be releasing in May and June, respectively.

A. The Front Cover Image. Our biggest mistake the first time around was that our front cover images were not particularly compelling.

Look at the front cover for the old Man Who Loved DVD: it's just a close-up of Adrienne Patterson's face. And, don't get us wrong, it's a nice face (hi Adrienne!), even when contorted into such an awful expression, but it doesn't really catch your eye.

Generally speaking, close-ups of faces are a mistake in DVD cover and poster design. It works for studios because studios don't have faces, they have stars. Take a picture of Johnny Depp wearing a hat and you can guarantee "x" number of butts-in-seats, because people will come out to see Johnny Depp (brand loyalty). Johnny Depp is a marketable commodity. Adrienne Patterson and David Schonscheck are, at this time, not. Putting their face and only their face on a DVD isn't going to interest anyone, and we know this because last year we put their faces and only their faces on our DVDs. It makes the whole thing look cheap and kinda fly-by-night: not the sort of vibe you want a potential viewer to have. So if there's one thing we want our fellow indie filmmakers to take away from this piece, it's that.

Our new front covers, on the other hand, are dominated by a strong visual element. One that, hopefully, gives you some feeling for the film and makes you want to see it. Said visual element also doubles as a typographical element, with the hand and the seahorse each bearing the title of the film. Without the title, the image falls apart, becomes less striking, less dynamic.

B. The Name. Turtleneck Films, right in the upper right hand corner. We considered putting the full website address on the front cover, but it definitely detracted, looked too messy. And I think just "Turtleneck Films" does the trick about as well-- the first thing you're going to find if you google those two words next to each other is this website. So, if A is intended to catch the eye and stop you from dismissing us, B is intended to give you somewhere to go to learn more.

Now, if someone is browsing Amazon or Createspace or wherever, this is all they're going to see before deciding whether or not they want to buy it. All they give you is the front cover. So, if the front cover is intended to persuade would-be buyers, while the rest is intended to make you repeat customers, to keep checking out our stuff.

C. The Spine Number. Probably the smartest thing Criterion ever did, marketing-wise, was putting a number on a spine. The best boutique labels, from Benten to Dragon Dynasty, all employ the spine number to lend a certain amount of prestige-- which, being us, we're careful to undercut with our cute little cartoon turtle.

You'll notice that said turtle's neck wraps around to the front cover. This is to intended to emphasize the spine number. You've just bought the DVD, you look at the front cover, see the neck, follow it to the spine, see the number. This is also why we moved the spine number from its traditional location-- the bottom-- to the top. We want you to see that spine, to see that # 2 so that you look into # 1 and look forward to # 3. More than a mark of prestige, a spine number is a canny form of advertising.

D. The Personal Touch. In many ways, we need this to try and balance out the pretension and impersonality inherent in utilizing a spine number. We are two people, and only two people, bereft even of interns to abuse, shooting these films in our home, using the computer in our rather drafty back-room to design the cover art, create the menus, beg and plead with the software when it decides inexplicably to stop working. We do pretty much everything ourselves, and we're well aware that emphasizing this fact-- the mom-and-pop, cottage-industry, folk-art and craft-show vibe-- will endear us to some.

E. Added Value. If you ask someone to spend $15-20 on a bare-bones DVD of a low-budget self-distributed film that they haven't heard much of anything about, let's face it, they're not going to bite. But if you give them some bonus materials, they might be more willing. Commentary tracks and shorts indicate that you've taken time, and thus helps to combat that nasty "thrown-together fly-by-night" image some people get of independent filmmakers. This might be the little something extra that makes the decision for a potential viewer-- movie + commentary track + shorts is definitely worth $15-20-- which is why we're going to list all the extra features as part of the summary on that Amazon page, and why we're going to emphasize them every chance we get on our own website (which our Potential Viewer found thanks to item B). And if you have more than a few Criterions or Bentens, you're well aware of how supplements can both deepen your appreciation of the film and make you a repeat customer.

A feature you don't find in boutique label releases are trailers, as they detract rather crassly from the whole film-as-art-object vibe. We use them on our DVDs though because (1), it's the best way to get that repeat customer to repeat, and (2) it's not a DVD Company pushing its wares but Tom and Mary, Husband and Wife Filmmakers pointing you in the direction of their other work-- which means that we can get away with it. Apropos (1), I suppose the ideal solution would be Criterion's canny catalogue liner insert/list of titles in numerical order, but our current distribution model doesn't allow for inserts of any kind-- not even a chapter list.

To wrap this up: as filmmakers working outside the festival system, dependent on critics' reviews that, for the most part, haven't been forthcoming, we realized we needed to step up our game. It'd be great if we could just make these films and then send them to a distributor who falls in love with the films and gives us oodles of money so that their boy geniuses can take care of the rest. Graphic design and DVD authoring are time-consuming, not entirely satisfying forms of expression, forms that definitely lack compared to the filmmaking which they exist to support. They're not a necessary "evil"-- they're just necessary.

Hopefully, some of the above will resonate with and be of assistance to other filmmakers who find themselves better-suited to making films than promoting them.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Princeton Holt's COOKIES AND CREAM.

Princeton Holt, a New-York-based director with whom I am acquainted via twitter, recently announced that his debut feature, Cookies and Cream, has been picked up by Celebrity Video Distribution. It'll be hitting DVD this July, and you might want to consider picking it up; a few words follow to try and sway you in that direction.

According to its synopsis, the film is about " a racially-mixed single mother who maintains an adult entertainment gig to take care of her daughter and herself", which sounds pretty salacious. What's most remarkable about the film is that it exhibits a tremendous amount of distance and restraint. By this, I'm not merely referring to the lack of nudity, sex scenes, and (for the most part) dirty talk-- though those decisions are interesting, commendable, and greatly undercut any nascent hints of tabloid sensationalism. What I'm talking about instead is formal distance and directorial restraint.

Holt seldom strives for effect or tries to punch it up. It's mock-verite/gonzo porn opening aside, there's thankfully very little of the deliberately ugly shaky-cam aesthetic that's infested the current American independent cinema. As I've written elsewhere, the shaky-cam approach is a schizoid one because it untethers its subjects from the everyday reality it so desperately wants to capture, presenting us not with people and bodies moving through time and space but with fractions of faces, headless slivers jittering about.

Cookies and Cream, in contrast, presents us with people, often head-to-toe, listening to and observing them patiently. Holt is so patient, in fact, and so confident that his characters will reward the viewer's patience, that he sometimes apes one of Woody Allen's best tricks by staging parts of his dialogue scenes with the actors out of the camera's range. Consider two frames from this minutes-long shot:

In the second frame you can see the two characters, but in the first, it seems empty, like one of Ozu's pillow shots (which were, of course, never truly empty). The two characters are in fact in the tunnel under the bridge, and as they talk with one another, they slowly worm their way out of it, slowly come into view, dots turning into people. Another director would have cut it much closer. A bad director might have framed the same shot but not given us characters worth looking for or dialogue worth listening to.

Holt's method suits his character. Carmen is played by Jace Nicole with a business-like distance and icy remove. She didn't fall into this career, I don't think, but rather planned on it with mercenary objectivity, counted out exactly how many days and how much money she'd need to do in order to create the life she wants for her daughter. This daughter, tellingly, is not on screen until almost the last scene in the picture. While you can pick up on Carmen's motivation fairly early on, by withholding the daughter's presence the film keeps us at the proper distance, keeps us interested in Carmen instead of merely rooting for her.

Because we never see her in any kind of sex act, there's really nothing carnal about this porn star: we don't get the mask, the persona. Or, rather, we get a different sort of mask and persona, as Carmen is always guarded, always wary of other people. There's a telling, painful moment in which she flinches when the man she's dating touches her face: gentle, intimate, warm. These aren't qualities she responds to. Even when she's talking to her daughter, when she explains to her that everything that she's doing is for her, it's presented logically, as an argument, as something intellectual instead of something emotional.

That last phrase could be used to describe the film as a whole, but with the caveat that there's a certain sadness that the film can register even if Carmen can't. And if this sounds like your cup of tea-- and I would say for the most part that it was mine-- you might want to keep an eye out for it this July. That's not to say that it's a perfect film-- for one thing, every time a character utters the film's tagline ("the show must go on") it manages to carry less resonance-- but it's an interesting and a promising one, a deliberately thoughtful film from a deliberately thoughtful director.

Monday, April 12, 2010

OLIVIA FOREVER!!: Story of a ring.

Early into Olivia Forever!!, and by early we mean less than a couple minutes in, Tedward (played by David Schonscheck) proposes to Olivia (Adrienne Patterson). Well, sort of.

We intended it to be slightly ambiguous-- he asks, but does so in such a way that if she says no, he can pretend that he was kidding. Which is, not to spoil anything, more-or-less what happens. We wanted to add to this by having Tedward reach behind him for a hidden ring. He starts to ask, his arm goes behind the television set, she says no, his hand comes back, empty.

And we agreed early on that we should really leave it at that. Keep it subtle, underplayed, make it something that adds to the scene if you pick up on it but doesn't harm it if you don't. We didn't want to do the obvious thing and cut into the box, and see him put it back. Too schmaltzy, said us.

But it became clear as we were cutting the scene together that, no matter the take or the angle, it was too subtle. He's doing something with his arm, but it's nothing that anyone would really pay attention to. No one would ever pick up on it but us. And so, we decided we needed an insert shot of the ring.

But how to do it so that it wasn't schmaltzy, obvious, and boring? Everyone else would cut to the box in his hand, so how could we add something to that? How could we make that moment, that shot, into something special instead of something merely ordinary?

Our simple, hopefully elegant solution was to start outside the box-- an old box, its felt entangled with wisps of dust-- and to dissolve inside of it, to see the ring itself. It's the sort of little cinematic touch that we love to see in films-- watch how much aching emotional resonance Scorsese gets out of the trick in his Age of Innocence-- and the sort of thing that might ever-so-slightly set us apart from the cult of realism that often plagues American independent films.

Don't be afraid to be obvious-- better something be obvious than to be nonexistent. And don't be afraid to be stylish. What both things have in common-- obviousness and style-- is that both are the tools of the bold, of the confident, of the ballsy, and low-budget films are in need of balls.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

So, About That Manifesto...

Filmmaker and critic Michael Tully recently drafted a "manifesto", which you can read here. In brief, he says that the film you make is more important than how you make it, that the behind-the-scenes story is irrelevant, he doesn't want to fund your film, and that he's tired of the endless panels about new media, internet marketing, raising finances, et cetera.

It's prompted a lot of criticism, especially from social-network-y filmmakers; his manifesto over-states his case, as both manifestos and Tullys often do. I signed it because I agree with it generally, in broad strokes, if not exactly 1:1. For example:

There's a story Akira Kurosawa told about a particularly expensive and arduous scene he shot for one of his films. It was such an absolute bear of a shoot that when he realized in editing he didn't need the scene, part of him fought the process. In the end, the scene hit the cutting room floor, because it didn't work for the film: all that matters is the end product. (Which reminds me somewhat of something Mike D'Angelo wrote about tricky single-take shots.)

So, yeah, I agree with that point. But at the same time, a film's back story can be compelling; Children of Paradise, a three-hour epic costume drama, was made in secret in Nazi-Occupied France. It's a great film in its own right, but the sheer audacity of its making does indeed deepen your appreciation of it. So, while I can definitely say "your back story doesn't matter if it's not there on the screen" at the same time, I can't come out and say, "I don't want to hear anything about how you made your film".

In fact, I do want to hear it. And I want to talk about it. That's why we blog about each of our shoots. That's why our new DVDs are including commentary tracks and supplemental features. Part of it is to provide more information to you, the viewer, and part of it is frankly and obviously to market us. Not just the film, but the people who made it: a married couple, financing the films with our pocket change, paying our actors in pizza, making the films we want to make the way we want to make them.

It's an image, one that's both carefully constructed and completely true. We play up our humbleness, the mom-and-pop-ness. We do it together and with equal billing both because we enjoy doing it together and because it'll get us farther ahead than either of us separately: Tom is, after all, yet another white guy in his twenties, and Mary is the woman filmmaker, less common than Tom but not a novelty. The married couple with equal billing? Bam!

But that image would be nothing if there weren't films attached to them. There are a lot of filmmakers who never actually make films, instead spending their time networking and attending seminars and learning buzzwords. The kind of people fuck-faced morons like Dov Simens appeal to. Not artists, but rather the prey for bullshit artists.

Social networking and marketing are useful and necessary tools, but only when used to actually do something. With a film, you'd be an idiot to not use them. Otherwise, it's just annoying-- just a simulacrum.

That, I think, is what Tully is really rallying against-- the marketing-of-marketing, the buzzword-thicket of nothing-actually-done. It's in opposition to that simulacrum which prompted my own signing.