Spotlight – Route 30-Pennsylvania: Not the Road Trip you Expect
An award-winning filmmaker finds creative freedom in making micro-budget movies right down the road from his childhood home.
By Tom Inglesby
John Putch is an independent sort of independent filmmaker. An industry veteran, Putch is the son of Emmy- and Golden Globe-winner Jean Stapleton, and producer/director William H. Putch. He began acting at the age of five and produced his first film at age 12 when his father shoved a super-8 camera into his hands and told him to go off and make a movie people could watch at his parents’ dinner parties.
He transitioned to directing films in his 40s, and after a list of TV mini-series, big screen movies, awards, and industry recognition, Putch was beginning to create an enviable directing career. But then he began feeling he was missing something and losing touch with his craft. That was in 2005 and the immediate result was the 2006-released Mojave Phone Booth, which won 13 awards including a Best Independent Feature Under $100,000 award at the Wine Country Film Festival. “Bigger and bigger budget projects rely heavily on big names, elaborate special effects, and an obscene marketing budget,” Putch recalls. “The creative talents of artists—producers, directors, writers, actors, and sound people—are drowned out, minimalized. With the tools we have today and the outlets at our disposal, Indie filmmakers are taking the power back.”
This philosophy is reflected in Putch’s The Route 30 Trilogy, feature films which collectively have earned more than 30 film festival awards. The series has proven that micro-budget films, with the traditional values of filmmaking, can be rewarding for the artist and craftsman as well as the audience, especially with all of the new technology and distribution channels available today.
Route 30 is a dramedy; Route 30, Too! a sci-fi comedy; and Route 30 Three!, a romantic comedy. All three were shot near Putch’s hometown in the picturesque south central Pennsylvania countryside between Chambersburg and Gettysburg, along Route 30, The Lincoln Highway. Recalling where he grew up, Putch’s Route 30 Trilogy takes a humorous look at a slice of rural Americana that has almost been stuck in time. Unlike most trilogies, each chapter stands on its own—you don’t need to see one to understand another.
In explaining his preference for micro-budget, anti-Hollywood movies, Putch says, “The big difference in most films today is that they’re less about the creative product and more about the commercial results. There’s the luxury of a good budget and a team of talented people, but very seldom do you actually get to touch every scene, every segment, every part of the total project.”
What is a micro-budget film? Putch has a set of digital filmmaking rules that govern the making of his films:
- The budget cannot exceed $100,000.
- The crew should be limited to eight.
- Actors must be responsible for their own wardrobe and appearance—no makeup or wardrobe staff.
- The film must be shot in less than 18 days.
- All the equipment has to fit in one car and one mini-van.
“I looked at that list and thought it was impossible,” Putch admits. “The biggest challenge any Indie filmmaker has to overcome is fear—fear of coming up short, fear of looking bad in front of your peers, fear of your work not satisfying the entertainment public. It’s really BS because that’s when creativity really kicks in and you end up with something you’re really proud of; and I think The Route 30 Trilogy is some of my best work to date.”
The first film was shot in 2007 and was released in 2008. It was shot entirely in south central Pennsylvania, in the towns of Gettysburg, Chambersburg, Fayetteville, St. Thomas, and Orrtanna (population: 173). “After a wildly fun reaction from the local town that it was shot in at a premiere, I blurted out that it would be a trilogy,” Putch says with a smile. “After all, it was fun to do and that was the whole point, to have fun. So to come back two more times to have more blissful experiences was a no-brainer.”
The work—and fun—began anew. Route 30 Too! was shot in the winter of 2010 and was released in 2012. “It’s a far more farcical film with more ghosts and some alien activity,” Putch comments. “I sent up the end of ET in the finale of this one.”
Route 30 Three! was lensed in August of 2013 and premiered one year later in Gettysburg. It will finish its three-city release in July 2015. Over all, the three films were about eight solid years in the making, doing it the anti-Hollywood way.
Keith Duggan was the DP of all three films. He also was cinematographer for Mojave Phone Booth. Each film was shot with an increasingly sophisticated camera. As Putch explains it, “For the first two films, Duggan and I owned the same camera. When we finish a film, we’d usually sell the cameras since we’d want to use newer technology on the next film. Route 30 used a Panasonic HVX200 P2; on Route 30 Too! we used Canon 5D and 7D with both Canon L series lenses and Nikon glass.”
Putch continues, “On Route 30 Three! we rented a Sony F3 and a set of Zeiss Compact Prime Super-speeds from our friend Steve Borow at Production Gear Rentals. We acquired clips on a AJA Ki Pro mini ProRes HQ. Since I’m the editor and post guy, I wanted to bypass Sony’s mpeg codec and go straight to ProRes.”
Why the rented Sony? “It was the first time I rented a camera in the trilogy,” Putch acknowledges. “We did it only because we were sick of the DSLR fad and did not want to buy an F3 as the F5 was on the horizon. Owning the equipment rather than renting saves a lot of money in insurance and rental costs. When you need all that gear for over a month it actually pays to buy it, shoot, then sell it rather than rent. When you own the equipment, you can knock down your premiums on the insurance.”
Putch goes on, saying, “The next film we are doing in August 2015, The Father and the Bear, will be shot on the Blackmagic URSA mini as A-cam and the Blackmagic pocket cinema cam as B-cam. We’ll use a set of Zeiss super-speeds, which I now own.”
Cameras need light; all three films used just four lights, two tripods and a slider—no dollies. “All the equipment is either owned by me or Keith,” Putch says. “We usually rent one small HMI (Hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide) light, the K5600 Joker-Bug 800. I have put together one of the finest micro-budget sound packages ever seen. It includes a micro cart built on a Film Tools hand truck. I have four wireless mic packages, two boom poles, two Sennheiser 416 shotgun mics and one Sanken short shot gun.”
In many cases, the crew engineered their own special equipment. That will continue, Putch says, in their next film. “We’ll be using a lot of LED lighting, which I own or Keith will build. He makes his own LED China balls that are strictly awesome, light weight, and put off no heat.”
As DP, Duggan regularly clones the compact flash (CF) cards as disk images and makes an insurance copy of the day’s clips and sound files in folders numbered by rolls. As Putch says, “Since I am an Adobe CC guy, I only use the cloud to have another set of backups for my edit project files. When shooting these movies, you don’t have a DIT (digital image technician) or ‘file jockey’ on set to download clips. It’s like the film days. You have enough cards or hard drives to get you through a day’s shoot, then, when it’s over, you go back to the hotel or house you are crashing at and download clips.”
He adds, “I usually add the sound files as well. We’ve used big external Firewire drives all the way to Thunderbolt external drives on the last film. I buy raw 3.5 drives from Other World Computing (OWC) and plop them into a Thunderbolt dock, what I call the ‘hard drive toaster,’ which is also from OWC. When one drive is full, we clone it. One set goes back with Keith and the other with me for editing. We keep them separate in case something ever happened to the set I am using. We box the raw drives in Hudzee HD cases until I get back to LA to edit. I usually edit right on the raw drive in the toaster, then pull it, clone and archive it. I’ve been using this form of archiving ever since Mojave Phone Booth. I make it a point to have an offsite backup of every project and I copy the projects to fresh drives every 4-5 years. And aside from having a set in my closet in my home office, I keep clones offsite in a climate controlled storage unit, which also is home to all my gear for making the movies.”
For the final chapter of the Trilogy, Putch used 4TB OWC-certified Thunderbolt hard drives in his “toaster.” The hard drive dock enables him to add and remove drives for maintaining multiple drive backups, cloning a hard drive, or providing extra storage. He emphasizes that he uses new OWC hard drives for every film project because reusing/overwriting a drive is a false savings and that isn’t a risk even the Indie film maverick wants to take.
Putch’s rules state that the shoot should be only 18 days long. But how would that break down in total hours? “We shot all the freaking time, weekends included,” Putch exclaims. “Depending on the locations, we’d sometimes do three weeks of six days each with only a day off. On subsequent outings we sometimes had a five-day week and two days off, then a six and another five. There is always some SAG holiday you have to avoid. By the third film, I wanted the shoot to be very easy and pleasant. So I scheduled some fives and one six-day week. With a crew of eight and me doing all of the producing, I need days off to prepare for the upcoming week. At micro-budget prices, it’s all about hotel rooms and food. I got such great deals in Chambersburg from the Country Inn and Suites that I saw no reason not to have a more relaxing shoot.”
Putch notes, “Most of the crew worked on all three films; they are an ensemble. The core is Keith Duggan, Mike Vartholomatos, and myself. We’ve had rotating sound guys for all three. All eight crew members are hyphenates. Sometimes you’ll be booming and other times you’ll be camera operator, or art, or props. It’s very communal and super-8 like—there is no department segregation. Keith dictates the lighting and together we decide the shots. I try to stage the scenes very simply to minimize the camera set-ups. But Keith is so fast and flexible and has a great skill with economy of light that I never have to worry about omitting shots in sequences.”
In addition to writing, directing, editing, producing, and financing his micro-budget films, Putch also built the promotional websites, produced and posted behind-the-scenes podcasts (40 for Route 30). He also markets the films and fulfills online orders. “With a micro-budget and the broad reach of the Internet, I’m able to make entertaining films that really give the power back to the artist,” he states.
“The entire concept of these movies for me is to be less professional and have more fun,” he points out.
“And it’s no fun to work 12 hours a day on an indie movie. This filmmaker is not insane about his ‘art piece’ and doesn’t want to run his friends into the ground while shooting. The mantra I use on these movies is that I must be a host, not a boss.”
And that is how you make a micro-budget award winner.