Eye on Independent Films
Although technology has leveled the playing field, the focus in indie filmmaking is on the people and the storytelling.
By Mark R. Smith and Christine Bunish
The film: 6
The starting lineup for the Strawn, Texas Greyhounds is featured in 6.
The genre: Documentary short; 24 minutes
What it’s about: Six-man football in rural Texas.
What it’s really about: “Communities in rural Texas, why they’re struggling and why they’re vital,” says director Jeff Bednarz. “If we lose their schools and their banks, we lose the towns and their history and the next generation of ranchers, too. This is about communities and how they stick together, in this case, through six-man football.”
Director/producer: Jeff Bednarz
Writer: Jim Ferguson
Executive producers: Jeremy Besser, John Gilliland, Tammie Kleinmann
DPs: Mark Thomas; Jeff Bednarz (2nd unit)
Editor: Jack Waldrip; Conform, Joey Waldrip, charlieuniformtango/Dallas
Colorist: Rick Stephenson, Filmworkers Club/Dallas
Postproduction sound: Amy Poller, mixer, charlieuniformtango/Dallas
Music: Various tracks from country/rock artist, Steve Earle
Acquisition format/camera: ARRI 16-SR3 and Photosonic 16mm cameras
Locations include: Strawn and Follett in rural West Texas; Lubbock for the state championship
Equipment rental: Panavision Dallas
Film festivals: Premiered at SXSW; USA Film Festival (Dallas); Dallas International Film Festival
Award: USA Film Festival’s Texas Award
Jeff Bednarz (left) directing 6 in rural Texas.
What inspired the production: “The shooting of some six-man spots a few years ago for NFL Network and my love of football, and a sudden phone call from Jim Ferguson who is from that area and explained the significance [of the state finals of six-man football] to me,” says Bednarz.
The biggest hurdles to financing: “We self-financed through our company, Directorz, and I felt it was a good PR move for us.”
The biggest production challenge: “Simply finding the time to shoot it and edit it,” says Bednarz, a commercial director. “That’s why it took 18 months to work around the football schedule and then work around the postproduction schedules to complete the project.”
The biggest postproduction challenge: “I didn’t want to use a voiceover to meld the footage together, so our biggest hurdle was weaving the audio we had with the footage and some audio play-by-play of the games that we acquired from the local radio stations that broadcast them live.”
How to get distributed: “We’re in negotiations with distributors now for DVD distribution. It’s been easy to get interest at various levels. On the broadcast side, the 22-minute length of the doc makes it perfect for a half-hour broadcast [with commercials] on a network or an affiliate.”
I couldn’t have made the film without: “Jim Ferguson and the open arms of these various rural communities. These are tightly-knit small towns, and it’s important to remember that we were given access during a pivotal time in the lives of these young people. We were very touched at the way we were welcomed and accepted.”
Lessons I’ll take to the next film: “What resonates with me is to always listen, especially when you’re making a documentary. You can’t have preconceived notions about the people in a small town, in this case, and how they’re going to treat you. The main thing is to be a fly on the wall and listen. Just have respect and a general blueprint of what you want, and they’ll write the story for you.”
The film: Endure
Judd Nelson (background) and Devon Sawa star as detectives racing to find a missing woman.
The genre: Crime thriller (feature); 92 minutes
What it’s about: A pair of detectives race to find a missing woman before an assailant gets to her first.
What it’s really about: “Learning the limits of our control over our lives and the realization that even in the darkest moments hope abides,” says director/writer Joe O’Brien.
Cast includes: Judd Nelson, Tom Arnold, Devon Sawa, Joey Lauren Adams
Director/writer: Joe O’Brien
Producers: Rob Tritton, Phillip Glasser; Paul Rogers, James Carleton, executive producers
DP: Stephen Campbell
Editor: James Carleton, NFocus/Lakeland, Florida
Colorist: John Petersen, Cinefilm/Atlanta; Conform, James Koon, Cinefilm
Postproduction sound mixing/sound design: Rick Morris, Maverick Sound/Winter Garden, Florida
Music: Adam and Dennis Davidson, Grubby Paws/Lakeland, Florida
Budget: $1.2 million
Acquisition format/camera: Multiple RED One cameras
Locations: Polk County, Florida
Equipment rental: Panavision and Hollywood Rentals/Orlando
Film festivals/distribution: Premiered at Gasparilla Film Festival/Tampa; Sarasota Film Festival; Nashville Film Festival; Cape Fear Film Festival
Award: Best Florida Production, Gasparilla Film Festival
A crane captures a scene for Endure in Lakeland, Florida.
What inspired the production: “The idea was originally based on the notion of being lost in a seemingly endless abyss of swampland without anyone knowing where you were,” says O’Brien.
The biggest hurdles to financing: “Raising money in an area known for real estate and stock investments, investing in a film was a new concept,” says producer Rob Tritton. “It was the end of the real estate boom: People were doing so well, why put their money anywhere else? We had to find people willing to take a bit of a risk and educate them about the business side.”
The biggest production challenge: “We shot Endure in 15 long, hard days with a full crew of 75-80 people to feed and house,” notes executive producer James Carleton. “We also spent a week in the middle of a swamp at night.” O’Brien reports that, “the limited time we had to shoot the film impacted every aspect of production from equipment scheduling to the mounting pressures on crew and talent.”
The biggest postproduction challenge: “I talked with Cinefilm during prepro so that going into post we had a really good idea where we were headed from editorial and color through the final conform,” says Carleton. “Once we established a good post workflow in prepro and adhered to it we ran into no major obstacles.”
How to get distributed: “Before we had a final locked picture we gauged the interest of five or six distributors/sales reps about half of whom wanted to represent us,” Tritton recalls. “We held industry screenings in New York and LA in June, and now we’re entertaining offers daily. We hope to exploit all ancillary markets in the US and explore foreign markets, too.”
We couldn’t have made the film without: “Our investors,” says Tritton. “They were not only our financial backers but smart business people, so we could go to them for feedback on general business practices. They believed in us when we began to have doubts and encouraged us.”
Lessons we’ll take to the next film: “There are probably 10 things we’ll do differently, but I think one would be going with a smaller crew and more shoot days,” Tritton says. “Creative endeavors are organic and need time to unfold,” adds O’Brien. “Scheduling time for this process for every scene will, in the end, pay dividends both in quality and dollars.”
The film: Floating: The Nathan Gocke Story
Nathan Gocke rides the waves once again. Photo by: Mike Gomez
The genre: Documentary short, 22 minutes
What it’s about: A 32-year old surfer who broke his neck in a surfing accident and became a quadriplegic. The film documents his progress as he deals with rehabilitation and pursues his dream of catching a wave again.
What it’s really about: “Believing in yourself in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds,” says director Richard Yelland. “It’s a relevant, uplifting message that resonates with disabled and able-bodied people alike.”
Director/producer: Richard Yelland
Executive producers: Morgan Spurlock and Jeremy Chilnick, Warrior Poets; Shon Tomlin, FUEL TV
DP: Christopher Gallo; Will Tipp (2nd unit)
Editor: Matthew Johnston, Matthew Johnston Editorial/Hollywood
8mm processing and telecine: Pro 8mm/Burbank
Colorist: Daniel Sumpter, Los Angeles
Postproduction sound: Sam Casas, Lindsey Alvarez, mixers; Jeff Malen, assistant mixer, Lime Studios/Santa Monica
Music: Tracks donated by Animal Collective, B. Fleischmann, Bad Veins, Bon Iver, Bright Eyes, Fanfarlo, Damien Jurado, David Kilgour, Moonlit Sailor, Sigur Ros
Budget: Initial $35,000 funding from Craig H. Neilson Foundation and the Life Rolls On Foundation; additional funding from Curtis Birch Productions.
Acquisition format/camera: Panasonic AG-HVX200 DVCPRO HD camera with lens adaptors; HD video-enabled Canon EOS 7D DSLR camera; NIZO Braun Super 8 camera
Locations include: Casa Colina Rehabilitation Centers, California
Film festivals/distribution: Airings on FUEL TV began June 23 and will continue for a three-year period; limited theatrical release last April in Los Angeles for Academy Award qualification. Accepted by Blue Ocean Film Festival; awaiting notification from Austin Film Festival, Brisbane International Film Festival, IDA Documentary Festival.
Nathan Gocke prepares to climb aboard his surfboard. Photo by: Mike Gomez
What inspired the production: “I’ve been working on this cause with the Life Rolls On Foundation for the past decade,” says Yelland. “I was inspired by the individuals I’ve met who have spinal cord injuries, and their ability to do amazing things.”
The biggest hurdles to financing: “Finding the funds to finish the project, which came from FUEL TV.”
The biggest production challenge: “Being able to stick it out and continue to film and believe in the project until it was finished. Technically speaking, [the challenge] was shooting some of the footage in the ocean, which required water housings for the cameras, a surfboard-mounted camera, cameramen and assistants going in and out of the water and dealing with changing weather and ocean conditions during this past rainy winter.”
The biggest postproduction challenge: “Obtaining the appropriate sound mix. We had very good sound throughout production, but you often can’t shoot an extra take in a documentary when you need to. So, if a plane passed overhead during a critical piece of dialogue, it was an issue. We often used lavaliers and boom mics simultaneously to deal with separation, but there were spots in the end product where we had to finesse the sound as best we could.”
How to get distributed: “We have a three-year licensing deal with FUEL TV for the U.S. and the Caribbean. We are looking into possibilities with Netflix and iTunes, as well as international distribution.”
I couldn’t have made the film without: “A dedicated, talented and passionate editor, Matt Johnston, as well as DP Christopher Gallo, 2nd unit DP Will Tipp and sound mixer Brian Maier, who all made sacrifices to finish the film. Also critical: Life Rolls On gained us access to Nathan in rehab right after his accident. Morgan Spurlock and Jeremy Chilnick believed wholeheartedly in the project, and Shon Tomlin of FUEL TV gave us the opportunity to finish the film and get it to broadcast.”
Lessons I’ll take to the next film: “Learning that the story I think I am going to tell in the beginning might not be the best for the film. Being patient, persistent and open to discovering the story as it unveils itself in front of the camera.”
The film: Idiosyncrasies
Josh Mulcoy turning a Bob Simmons design in mainland Mexico with collaborator Richard Kenvin looking on.
The genre: Feature documentary; 65 minutes
What it’s about: An exploration of unique minds in surfing.
What it’s really about: “Idiosyncrasies reveals what’s behind the impact of some of surfing’s most influential underground individuals, from 20-year old Leanne Curren to 61-year old Harbor Bill Mulcoy, by looking at their art and music, surf craft and lifestyle choices,” says director Patrick Trefz.
Director/writer/DP: Patrick Trefz
Executive producers:Greg Martinez, Clark Brigham
Editor/facility/city: Jeremy Huff, Jeff Lopus, Nan Pierce, Sean Cope; assistants Amanda Hudson, Blake Bogosian; TEAK/San Francisco
Postproduction sound: Chris Gridley, sound editor/re-recording mixer, San Francisco
Music: Contributed by friends, including bands Undersea Poem (NYC/Brazil), Kante (Berlin), The Windy Hills (Byron Bay, Australia)
Acquisition format/camera:Panasonic AG-HVX200 DVCPRO HD camera; HD video-enabled Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR with 600mm lens; Bolex and ARRI 16mm film cameras; all in Ron Barbisch custom water housings
Locations include: Santa Cruz and San Diego, California; Australia; Hawaii; Mexico
Film festivals/distribution: Premiered at San Sebastian surffilmfestibal (Spain); New York Surf Film Festival (September 2010). DVD release through VAS Entertainment.
Surfboard glasser Doug Fletcher from Santa Cruz.
What inspired the production: “I believe the individuals in my [film's] short stories have a very distinct, at times eccentric, style,” says Trefz. “They all seem to do things in their own way, regardless of trends and flavors that the mainstream surfing world has to offer. And I feel a strong kinship, a psychological attachment to the underdog.”
The biggest hurdles to financing: “A downturning economy,” notes Trefz who financed the film himself. “My credit cards were heavily used, but as a photographer with Surf Magazine I was also able to shoot while I was on some assignments.”
The biggest production challenge: “There really wasn’t any. Whatever happened I didn’t see as a problem; I took it as part of making movies. After all, I was out in the water enjoying myself! On the technical side, the HVX200 gave me a beautiful, warm look with a lot of depth, and I love its slow motion. And the Canon 5D was good at capturing images in poor lighting conditions or existing light.”
The biggest postproduction challenge: “Honing the mass amount of surf footage into a 60-minute film. That’s where TEAK came into play – six months of editing of the highest professional standard really made the whole movie happen! Without them, I’d still be in the editing bay for years to come. Thanks to [TEAK owner and fellow surfer] Greg Martinez and his crew!”
How to get distributed: “As a very specialized documentary Idiosyncrasies works well at surf film festivals and other festivals where there’s a lot of human interest. With all the changes in the market the classic movie release isn’t the [only outlet] anymore, I see more of a place for us on the web, in hybrid media. We also have an Idiosyncrasies coffee-table book of photos coming out this fall.”
I couldn’t have made the film without: “The cast. They are a very elusive crowd, and I’m lucky enough to have their trust to be able to document slices of their lives. Thanks also to TEAK for their commitment to the project and Sancho Rodriguez at the San Sebastian surffilmfestibal, the first and biggest of its kind in the world.”
Lessons I’ll take to the next film: “Every time I move onto the next film I feel a little wiser. I hope I’m learning from past experiences and becoming a better storyteller.”
The film: Marwencol
Mark Hogancamp setting up a scene in the Marwencol installation. Photo by: Tom Putnam
The genre: Feature documentary, 82 minutes
What it’s about: After being attacked and severely injured in 2000, Mark Hogancamp creates an imaginary world, Marwencol, a one-sixth scale World War II-era town — in his backyard as a form of recovery.
What it’s really about: “Whether art can serve as therapy,” says director Jeff Malmberg.
Director/producer/DP: Jeff Malmberg
Producers: Jeff Malmberg, Tom Putnam, Matt Radecki, Chris Shellen, Kevin Walsh
Additional cinematography: Putnam, Radecki, Walsh
Editor/conform: Jeff Malmberg, Different by Design/Los Angeles
Colorist: Brian Hutchings, Different by Design/Los Angeles
Postproduction sound: Pete Kneser, mixer, PeteSound/Los Angeles
Music: Ash Black Bufflo
Budget: Under $100,000
Acquisition format/camera: Sony PD-150 DVCAM; Canon 814 Super 8mm
Location: Kingston, New York
Film festivals/distribution: Premiered at SXSW; Seattle Film Festival; Cleveland International Film Festival; Independent Film Festival Boston. Theatrical distribution in the U.S. this fall by The Cinema Guild.
Awards include: Grand Jury Prizes, SXSW, Seattle Film Festival, Cleveland International Film Festival; Special Jury Prize, Independent Film Festival Boston
A Nazi spy posing as an American GI is shot by an Allied firing squad in Marwencol.
What inspired the production: “I saw photographs of Mark Hogancamp’s imaginary world, and I wanted to find out what was going on inside of his head,” says director Jeff Malmberg.
The biggest hurdles to financing: “Just paying for it myself, which took me four years.”
The biggest production challenge: “Trying to make a film by myself. It was me talking to Mark with the camera and sound equipment.”
The biggest postproduction challenge: “Trying to figure out what all of the footage meant after four years of production. Mark is a very interesting person, and there are various aspects of his life for a director to focus on and that made [it] tough to select.”
How to get distributed: “I think it was all thanks to premiering at SXSW. We got theatrical and PBS TV offers the day after the movie played there. I think that shows the power of film festivals, especially SWSW, to get a little movie exposed to the world.” PBS telecast is scheduled for 2011.
I couldn’t have made the film without: “Mark [Hogancamp]. The film is really a tribute to his imagination, which I found to be very inspiring.”
Lessons I’ll take to the next film: “That making a film is not really about the size of your crew and the equipment you have. It’s about the heart that you put into your work and the subject in front of your camera, and the depth of your relationship with the subject.”
The film: The Putt Putt Syndrome
Jason London discovers he’s suffering from The Putt Putt Syndrome.
The genre: Dark comedy (feature); 85 minutes
What it’s about: Johnny lives the perfect married life until his best friend’s theories on infidelity send him spiraling down into midlife crisis hell.
What it’s really about: “Not taking life or the people in your life for granted by being too complacent,” say producers Rene Veilleux and Donald Roman Lopez.
Cast includes: Jason London, David Chokachi, Thea Gill, Heather Tom, Robert Maschio, Paul Diomede
Director/producer/writer: Allen Cognata
Producers: Rene Veilleux, Donald Roman Lopez, VeritÈ Films, Los Angeles
DP: Rich Marino
Editor: Dino Marc Pascarelli, New York City
Colorist/Additional editing/Conform: Greg Huson, Secret HQ/Los Angeles
Postproduction sound: Devon Bowman, mix/sound design, Atlas Oceanic/ Los Angeles; Craig Jansson, additional sound design; Salami Studios/North Hollywood, additional post audio
Acquisition format/camera: Sony F35 HD camera
Locations include: Winthrop, Manchester and Lewiston, Maine
Equipment rental: TCS/New York City
Film festivals: Debuted at Connecticut Film Festival; Philadelphia Independent Film Festival; KahBang! (Maine)
Award: Honorable Mention, Best Picture, Philadelphia Independent Film Festival
Shooting The Putt Putt Syndrome at Maranacook Lake,
Winthrop, Maine on a rare sunny day. Photo by: Afton Grant
What inspired the production: “It was no surprise to me to find out that nearly six in ten American marriages end in divorce,” says director Allen Cognata. “What I found most intriguing was the state of the 40 percent of marriages that remained intact. The more I researched, and the more couples I interviewed, the quicker I came to the startling conclusion that more than half of these couples were actually miserable. So the question became, why is marriage an 80-percent losing proposition?’”
The biggest hurdles to financing: “We were financing in the first six months of 2009, during the financial crisis, so it was a bad time,” notes Veilleux. “Allen was key to raising the funds. His friends, family and coworkers bought units in the film, there was no one angel investor.”
The biggest production challenge: “Finding accommodations in a town of less than 10,000 for the main talent from LA and most of the out-of-state crew,” recalls Veilleux. “We rented houses and shared rooms. This was a big movie by Winthrop’s standards, and we took over the town. Working around the weather was also tough. It rained 15 of the 18 shooting days.”
The biggest postproduction challenge: “We thought we were done with post, the film looked good and sounded good,” says Veilleux. “Then the questions started to come [from sales reps and distributors], so we’re back doing a second round of post to make sure we meet all the requirements for both domestic and international delivery.” Lopez notes that, “finishing means budgeting for all the deliverables, everything that makes your film ready to sell or it won’t get out there.”
How to get distributed: “The cast is really key to any film, the bankability of the names,” Veilleux reports. “Distributors and sales agents always ask, ‘ Who’s in it?’ We’ve been lucky to get a lot of unsolicited email from sales reps who found us online, through festivals and IMDB. A lot are waiting to see the final cut; then we’ll start sending screeners and shopping the film around.”
We couldn’t have made the film without: “The citizens of Winthrop,” the producers agree. “Everyone was supportive at every turn. Making a movie there was an exciting experience for them, and their contributions were absolutely priceless for us.”
Lessons we’ll take to the next film: “We have three other features in development and are in production on a documentary,” Veilleux says. “We’ll make sure everything is included in the budget from the paper the script is written on to the final tape delivered to the sales agent. Account for everything or you’ll get stuck in postproduction purgatory, and after working so hard, no one wants to be in that place!”
The film: Refresh
Stephen Culp stars in Refresh as an unhappy businessman who finds an effective, but irrevocable, solution to his problem.
The genre: Short science-fiction thriller; 13 minutes
What it’s about: A wealthy but chronically unhappy businessman at the end of his rope hires a mysterious company that promises an effective, but irrevocable solution to his problem.
What it’s really about: “How people can become so desperate leading lives they thought they wanted that they suddenly desire radical change,” says director David Orr.
Cast includes: Steven Culp, Scott Michael Campbell Director/producer/writer: David Orr
Producers: Paul Papanek, Sharon Lineker
DP: Andrew Turman
Editor: Christopher Willoughby
Colorist/HD conform: Jim Bohn, Liquid/Venice, California
Postproduction sound: Jeff Levy, mixer, Margarita Mix/Santa Monica
Music: John Hill, composer, original score; 8MM band, end theme
Budget: Under $10,000
Acquisition format/camera: HD video-enabled Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR
Locations: St. Barnabas Senior Center and S. Mark Taper Foundation Adult Day Care Center, Los Angeles
Equipment rental: CAMTEC/Burbank (camera and accessories); Tomzilla/Burbank (grip and electric)
Film festivals: Premiered at Vail Film Festival; Newport Beach Film Festival; LA Shortsfest
What inspired the production: “The tableau and mood were inspired by a visit to a sleep-study clinic, a place where you spend the night monitored by video cameras and electric sensors attached to your body,” explains Orr. “I remember lying there in my pajamas, getting hooked up to a machine by an unfamiliar person, thinking, &slquo;wow, this is just like a horror film!’ I began writing the next day.”
The biggest hurdles to financing: “Keeping the budget low enough that I felt comfortable financing it myself. It was designed to be incredibly low budget. The Canon 5D required a lot less light, compared to RED, so I needed fewer people for grip and electric. We were able to shoot by supplementing available light and got a great look.”
The biggest production challenge: “Finding a location in LA willing to let us film for next to nothing. My wife [producer Sharon Lineker] works in healthcare and found St. Barnabas which actually hosts wonderfully-curated movie nights at their facility, so they were really film friendly. Also, working with the 5D. When we shot [in May 2009] no one had used the camera for a narrative project, so we were pioneers. There was no one [with] quick and easy answers. Even Canon didn’t anticipate the camera being used this way.”
The biggest postproduction challenge: “The 5D was so new it was difficult to know what was going to be possible: how 8-bit compressed footage might react to color correction, that kind of thing. We had difficultly doing conversions from 30 to 24 fps, a firmware upgrade allowing that frame rate was released after we wrapped. Based on early footage, Randal Kleiser invited me to be a panelist and screen excerpts for the DGA’s Digital Day. That became our test run, taking the process from the beginning through projection in the DGA’s Theater 1, one of the best rooms in the world. Even I wasn’t prepared for how great Refresh would look like S16mm!”
What’s next for Refresh: “The film is doing the festival circuit, and I’m on my second draft of a feature script for Refresh. I’m using the short along with my commercial reel as a showreel for feature, series and branded-content projects.”
I couldn’t have made the film without: “The strong support of family and friends. As for the core group, when Christopher [Willoughby] and Andrew [Turman] told me they were interested I knew I’d be able to accomplish the project. A shout out to West EFX and Erick Brennan who did a great job on the practical fire and mask effects.”
Lessons I’ll take to the next film: “One of the things I learned early as a commercial director and which was reiterated with this film was the importance of prep. We tested everything ahead of time and did run-throughs all the way down the pipeline.”