Indie Corner

MAKING YOUR DIGITAL FEATURE STAND OUT

By • Jan 1st, 2003 •

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“We can shoot a feature film on Digital Video entirely in my apartment with my buddies, and use the local garage band for music. It won’t cost a thing!” I have nothing against that idea, but who will buy your film? Nowadays, a micro budgeted feature film is being lensed in every zip code in the country. For an extra $3,500 to our film’s budget, we added a history making celebrity, music from an 80’s pop icon, and a faraway location.

My film-producing partner Paul Kanter became intrigued with a true story about a young woman hounded by a stalker who knew everything about her. She wondered how he knew where she went on vacation, what she did at night, and why she went to the doctor. Is he a peeping tom? A master at spy cameras? Can he see through brick walls? No, he found all this information by simply going through her garbage.

Paul and I forged ahead on a screenplay. The working title of the film was simply “EVIL”. We didn’t like the ending where the victim, Casey (whom we made a restaurant owner) electrocutes her stalker Anson in a large indoor pool. It was a special effects riddled, and not very original ending. Rather than get stuck in writer’s block, we wrote the scene anyway. We knew we could fix it, and replace it with the more realistic ending the finished film has. Remember, there is no such thing as a one-draft wonder. By Labor Day, 2001, we knew we were weeks away from shooting EVIL.

The frightening events of 9/11 not only delayed us, but put a general halt on much of New York’s independent film-making scene. Investors wanted to hold onto their funds. The reason why we were getting our funding and support was that investors knew that their involvement in a small local film could generate terrific publicity for their businesses.

Erin Cumminsky as Casey, the stalker’s victim

We went ahead with casting anyway. For the part of Casey, I chose Manhattan based Erin Cummiskey. Erin had the good looks and the talent to effectively pull off the part of an ordinary girl whose life is torn apart by a stalker. For the stalker, New Jersey based John Roberts got the part. His frantic/dark comic ability reminded me of a cross between Chris Rock and Claude Rains’ cackling mad INVISIBLE MAN. The part of Casey’s best friend, Trisha went to Brooklyn based actress/model Shawna Bermender. Shawna knows how to mix improvisation while sticking to the screenplay. The rest of the cast was made up of actors who proved themselves in SHARP AND SUDDEN, a feature film I finished earlier in 2001.

Glenn Andreiev sets up the Digital Camera for an inexpensive but effective car / camera mount.

By February 2002, we were ready to shoot. As always, I film my most technically challenging scenes first. If something goes wrong, I have the rest of production to re-do the scenes. The two technical challenges here were a camera/car mount and some blue screen work. For the camera mount, I simply clamped the digital video camera (in this case, a Canon GL1) to a board heavily duct-taped to my car hood. Foam cubes between the board and the car hood cushioned the cameras car ride. The film had several dream sequences requiring blue screening. We always had to heavily light our blue screen. These computer generated effects work best with bright-saturated colors. It proved a challenge because I wanted to go with dark, film noirish lighting.

One of the nice things about shooting with small digital video cameras is that you can get away with cinematic murder. We shot two rain scenes. All we had to do was wrap the camera in heavy plastic. For one rain scene, we hid a microphone under Erin’s heavy coat. The small equipment took the scare out of business owners when we shot on their locations. At the end of the film, Casey is forced to flee her stalker by moving from New York to Florida. What do we do since we’re the poor kids on the block? Have some people sit in a room, where a Florida newspaper sits on a table. That would really cheap.

EVERYBODY LOVES A LOCATION

If you saved money by shooting on digital, seriously consider putting those savings towards some cool locations. Unlike theatre, a film can take you anywhere, from your friend’s messy apartment to the back alleys of Parnu, Estonia. We spent two days in Jacksonville, Florida filming what happens to the New York based Casey. For the $ 500 cost of flying our actress, Erin Cummiskey to Florida, and housing her at a beachfront motel, we were able to add an extra location to the film, and make the film more believable.

Upon returning to New York, the rest of the filming went smoothly. For economic reasons, we filmed mostly one day a week. (I am normally against this, because changes can occur in an actor or directors life if you stretch filming like we did from February to June.)

EVERYBODY LOVES MOVIE STARS

Distributors instantly lose interest when you answer the question “Who’s in your film?” with “All unknowns”. Our first celebrity search ended with a false happy conclusion with wrestling legend Captain Lou Albano. Although Captain Lou is one of the nicest people I ever met, he’s a Screen Actors Guild member. That proved a problem.

Bernard Goetz as “The Criminologist” demonstrates gun use to Amythyst Valentino

The so-called new SAG agreements for very low budget film-makers to use SAG actors is jammed with oceans of paperwork for the producer, and finally an expensive “bond”. We had to look beyond actors and actresses. We decided to go with a newsworthy celebrity. We got no responses from famed Long Island women like Amy Fisher and Lizzie Grubman. Finally, I found a contact number for Bernard Goetz, who as you know, in 1984, shot a street gang who threatened him on a Manhattan subway. The “subway vigilante” was applauded by many for sticking up against the rising amounts of violent crimes infesting New York City at the time. Mr. Goetz instantly agreed to do the film.

“I want you to play a rather distant commentator to all the action that occurs in the film”, I told him. “So, you want me to play it like Raymond Burr in GODZILLA?” Goetz replied. I figured, great, I have a fellow film buff here! We shot his scenes in one day, allowing him to improvise. A week afterwards, the Goetz cameo got us a write up in the New York Post. This sort of publicity is much better and effective than going the festival route. (I usually cringe when people ask “So, you’re going to submit your film to Sundance?” To me, that’s like a fashion model saying “the only employment I seek is winning the Miss America pageant.”)

MANIAC MUSIC

John Robetrts (as the stalker) records profanity-laced voice overs.

One aspect that often drags down an ultra low budget indie is the music the filmmakers feel they have to choose. Most classical music is public domain. It’s just that classical music performances recorded after 1922 are not. You just can’t go to your favorite Beethoven CD, and record away onto your film. Nicholas Kent, a classmate from School of Visual Arts created the music for all five of my films. Not only did he create a unique almost 60’s monster-movie style score for the film, he was able to perform a version of Schubert’s ‘Unfinished Symphony’ effectively on his own. “But getting the rights to a known rock tune is going to cost a bloody fortune!” exclaimed one co-worker on the film. Not so. We secured the rights to use Samantha Fox’s “Do Ya Do Ya Wanna Please Me” for a reasonable sum. (During the late 1980’s Ms. Fox was England’s more fun and spunky answer to Madonna) The license holders to the song at first turned down our first request, to use the music during one of the film’s violent scenes. We used the song in a less violent scene.

Being able to say you have a known singer in your film, having a celebrity in the cast, and choosing some neat locations is going to make you more desirable to distributors.

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