MATTERS OF FICTION – Five Years After “Four”
Strap in. This is going to be a long one. But seeing as I only post about every three months, maybe that is a good thing.
If memory serves me correctly, which happens sometimes, then roughly nine days ago marks the five-year anniversary of the completion of the European leg of my DePaul MFA thesis film production “Four.” In October of 2008, I set out with a small crew of five DePaul film students to tell four unique stories set in four distinct international cities encapsulated in one 40 minute film.
The movie, “Four” was roughly based on the concepts presented in C.S. Lewis, “Four Loves” and explored different types of relationships all around the world. As a filmmaker, it remains something that I am proud to have created and reflecting upon the experience now some five years later I learned a great deal from the journey, the process and the creation of this MFA thesis project. You can check out a trailer below:
In honor of the project and the many individuals who helped to bring it to life, I would to take some time to look back not just on the creation of the film but on the lessons I have learned both from that project and in the subsequent five years. As “Four” marked my “mastery” of the lessons of film school, I feel it appropriate to discuss the matters that require attention when embarking on the adventure that is independent moviemaking.
I was going to put this bit second but really, it comes first. The reason people make films, both fictional and non-fictional is to tell stories. Robert McKee claims that an audience clamors a “great story, well told.” I’m not in any position to say that I told a great story with “Four.” I believe it was a good story and I believe that our telling of it was unique and proved effective. The film was lauded in multiple festivals and was deemed strong enough to earn me my Master’s degree. But that’s not really a lesson learned. If I retold this story today it would be infinitely more refined and pointed, but it was what it needed to be at the time.
The lesson I learned with this film and where I believe it finds its strength is that up to that point it was the most personal story I had ever told. If you know me or have taken one of my courses or perused this blog, it is not hard to discern the types of stories I like at the theater. I like epic stories, robots, superheroes, thrillers and sci-fi films. “Four” was not this kind of story. It was an amalgamation of life lessons I had discerned from life experiences during my late teens and early twenties. I think that as a young filmmaker–not in terms of age but in terms of experience–it is important to explore the truths that we understand. I have never been a warrior, a star pilot, a god or a hit man, but I have been a friend, lover, father and a citizen of the world. I chose to explore that and I believe that these things resonated with people. This isn’t to say I couldn’t turn my understandings about the world onto a more fantastical story, but I think at the time it was important that this be the story I told.
Write what you know—not literally. Unless you want to. Even if you are writing a story about a Martian who falls in love with a Dragon slayer, the human experience is why we show up. To observe and better understand the human condition. If you leave that part out, you’ve just got a bunch of emotionally detached images that remain hollow on the inside.
Something many colleagues and I often lament is this kind of “innocence lost” type of feeling when it comes to filmmaking. This isn’t in reference to some sort of horrible trauma we’ve experienced but it’s an admiration of the fearless attitude that is often coupled with youth. When I set out to make this film, I had no fear of failure. It was the biggest undertaking I had ever been a part of but failure didn’t never entered into my mind and logistics were just details to be worked out.
Again, this isn’t a boast saying “look how awesome I was.” This is a look at a change in attitude over the past five years. Do I still think anything is possible on screen? You bet your ass. But if you said, here’s $20K go make a movie in four different countries, I would have to think long and hard about how to pull it off.
Experience breeds caution, which is very often the enemy of ambition. Once you understand “how things are supposed to be” or have dealt with some botched shows and production nightmares you get jaded. People bring up ambitious ideas and your first reaction becomes “we can’t do that” instead of “how can we make this work.” It’s detrimental to going out and making films by any means necessary, but it’s also a part of life. How many things did you do as a teenager or child that you know are stupid a few years later? Learning from our mistakes is both a gift and a curse. We get better and improve our product but the boldness to just go out and make something happen is diminished.
There’s a lot of filmmakers who would argue strongly against this observation. Honestly this is why I put STORY first because a good story will outweigh any technical achievement. However, I have kind of evolved from a Writer/Director into a Writer/Cinematographer and I am very much into capturing exquisite, cinematic images.
I say cameras matter because at the time we shot “Four” the best camera I could get my hands on was a Sony PMW EX-1. For the lay people in the audience, this is an early model High Definition DIgital Camcorder. The camera captures great colors and in the pre-DSLR world was a solid “prosumer” option.
Fast forward not even a year later and DePaul has the RED One. DSLR’s come of age. There are a variety of options that drastically increase your ability to create “movie-like” visuals. Am I happy with the way the film looks? Absolutely. The exceedingly talented Noah Christopher was an outstanding DP and we achieved some great things in terms of image. But like a 2008 Blackberry against a 2013 iPhone 5, or a movie shot on VHS versus Digital, the format limits the shelf life of the movie.
Does the camera make the movie? No. Absolutely not. But if you shoot on film or its digital equivalent, the age of the movie isn’t going to show as drastically when the next batch of revolutionary HD cameras arrive a year later.
Sound is half the picture. I knew this then, I know it even more now. I am very thankful to Conor O’Donnell for adventuring across the world with us and capturing clean audio for the film.
Not a lot to discuss here but for young filmmakers–get a proper sound person on EVERY project. Give them the time, space and material to do it right and do their job well. It makes all the difference in the world.
Now having been a part of hundreds of different film/video/commercial/etc shoots in the past 8-9 years of filmmaking, I have been able to observe a variety of different crews and sets. Something I have noticed is another intangible…the energy of the set and the production very often carries over into the post-production process and also the final project. I am a big believer that if you create an amazing experience in the creation of a piece of art, that energy can be bottled and transferred into the art itself. It lives in the piece and it resonates through it, exerting itself out onto those who expose themselves to the creation.
Have fun and be positive. Moviemakers can change lives but you aren’t saving them. It should be a fun experience. Don’t run your crew into the ground; treat people and locations with respect. With travel and other responsibilities throughout our production I tried to keep our days around 6 hours filming about two pages per day. Maybe a little less than some shows require to get the job done but it created a strong concentrated working environment for those shooting hours and allowed us to bond as a crew in the quiet moments.
Energy affects your cast as well. If your actors are feeling relaxed, they will be much more comfortable digging deep and crafting the performance you need to tell the story.
The above note allows me a good transition to talking about Acting and talent in general. Good actors are tough to come by and I was very fortunate to find a number of them in this project. Like myself as a director, most of my cast was fairly early on in their career path but the professionalism and dedication they brought to the project allowed the characters to come to life. I remain in close contact with most of the cast of “Four” to this day via social media and other means.
There is something truly moving about seeing words you have put on a page come into existence and go into new places thanks to the people who are performing them. Take the time to find the right people for the part, people who are going to do their job so you can do yours.
To my amazing cast on this project (by location): Levi Holloway, Francesca Brown, Ariele Senara, Meghan Kohl, Maggie Wimp, Brian Robinson, Patrick Murphy, Jack Lowe, Ciaran Davies, Miranda Craigwell, Richard Keep, Justin Mamula, Jah Bell…thank you all for the gifts of time and talent you offered to the film. Thank you for the lasting friendships we’ve created. Thank you for bringing our story to life for audiences all over the world.
Appropriately enough. Many of my talented friends mentioned above were found quite by accident, or by the cosmic forces of the universe aligning. This is tied into my naivety/brashness thought. Sometimes things just work out in your favor and greatness will come from it. Ask any artist. Happy accidents are wonderful. Be open to them, be ready for them but don’t count on them if you’re lacking elsewhere.
This entire film was built because of a lifetime of friendships. A significant chunk of our budget was raised–before the days of Kickstarter and such–through a series of fundraisers put on by my collaborators and I. People from my childhood all the way up through graduate school showed up, partied and donated their hard earned money so that we could pursue the dream of making this movie.
Even on through production, it was friendships that made everything possible. People dedicated their time, their talents and their passion to “Four” and it shined through in spades. My European crew was very bare bones. Noah Christopher Jay Pepitone, Mattie Vandersteen, Conor O’Donnell and Alice Doyard were there for the scope of the entire adventure. We trekked across the world together making movies. In this single exploit, though now just a moment in time, I remain deeply connected to all of these individuals for the rest of my life.
In Chicago, filmed some months after the European leg of the production, our DePaul family came out of the woodwork. Ryan Linich and Hamzah Jamjoom joined our team of editors. Many of my usual collaborators mentioned on this blog and more others than I can recall at this moment brought their skills to the table to see that everything came together in style. I won’t go into names because I will invariably leave someone out. The point is that your network and your relationships are going to allow you to overachieve. They are what picks you up and allows you to reach for the stars, they will take your ambition and make it come to life. Treat them right and with the respect they deserve.
Network is everything. It is what will evolve you in your career and life as time goes on. 95% of my current business comes from pre-existing relationships and their connections. Honor these people and it will come back to you tenfold.
MUSIC RIGHTS (SOMETIMES) DON’T MATTER
Okay. Back to some filmmaking observations.
In all actuality they mattered to me in slowing down a potential distribution deal for “Four.” But I have noted over the subsequent years that a great number of indie filmmakers just kind of put in the music that they want when making a film. If you want to have Boyz II Men during your passionate love scene, as an artist I kind of say go for it. At least until you start having success and/or making money–then you need to give people what they deserve. But in the short term, when you’re trying to see your artistic vision through, do what you need to get the movie you want.
Now that being said, I also believe that original music and scoring are vastly important. My insanely talented cousin (network/friends again), the late Sean Murphy, created a moving score for “Four” that allowed this creation to be completely unique and really brought it to life. I was honored to collaborate with Sean and am saddened that we weren’t able to take our collaborations further.
Whatever the case–serve the story, serve the emotion and get the music in there that you need. You can handle the rest when you are the toast of the festival circuit.
Now speaking of festivals. This is where things have changed a great deal in these past five years. Festivals remain the most defined path to getting your movie out into the world. Take this world by storm and people will see your movie. Important people with the power to purchase your movie or move your career forward.
The other side of that coin is, you can really achieve a lot of this yourself thanks to the power of the internet. New models are popping up everywhere for self-distribution, digital sales and other modes of getting your film out to the masses. Artists and filmmakers can build extensive networks through social media, build hype around their film and get it in front of power players in Hollywood and elsewhere in the world without a single festival screening. Netflix, Distribber, Hulu, iTunes Store and other modes of digital distro were all in their infancy in terms of reach when I made this film. The model is changing and it is ripe for th exploitation if you play your cards right.
GAME PLANS MATTER
I saw this film through to the end because I had a plan. I had a target budget, a timetable and a plan in terms of execution. It allowed me (obviously with those mentioned throughout) to reach far beyond my capabilities and bring an idea to life. You need to know exactly what to do from preproduction all the way through distribution.
Distribution is one place where I fell short with “Four.” I was so focused on “getting it done” that I hadn’t thought fully of the future. We just kind of submitted to festivals and had moderate success but the lack of the long-term plan prohibited the movie from really getting legs.
How do I want to get the movie out there? What are the best places to show my film? What is my next film going to be? How does this fit into my career as a whole? These are all questions that you need to have answered before you leave the editing room so you can plan and more importantly budget to properly answer them.
See festivals paragraph 2. One of the successes of “Four” was our premiere in Chicago. We sold over 500 tickets for our single opening screening which still kind of blows my mind to this day. A lot of that was the aforementioned network but we did have a marketing strategy.
We created a series of behind the scenes, making of and interviews with cast and crew that we released on a weekly basis leading up the film’s release. Coupled with the international intrigue of the movie this generated a lot of interest and allowed us to get press on the release and build a lot of interest amongst our social networks.
I was better at it then and had people–namely Mattie–editing videos and helping me out. Marketing is all about content and consistency. Meaning your content needs to be engaging and you need to build enough of it to consistently offer solid material. We got to share the creative process, parts of our adventure and parts of our personality that our peers and audience wouldn’t otherwise get to experience. I believe it created a personal attachment to our movie amongst peers and word spread to different levels of their own networks. It made for an amazing premiere night and a very successful release.
Not finishing like mastering to Blu-ray or a film print–though this matters as well. Finishing the movie is the most important thing.
Sometimes it is more important than some of the elements of the movie itself. The reason? Movies of all shapes and sizes, from the biggest blockbusters to the smallest indie flicks starring one actor frequently never see the light of day. Ours is a business subject to Murphy’s Law, “anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” You need to be ready for that and you need to have the determination to see your project through even in the face of annihilation.
This is what separates those who work from those who dream. I know I am not God’s gift to the movie making world, I have talents that people seem to appreciate but there are also individuals who can execute things far beyond my skill level. I have no control over that and neither do you. Just like with sports, there is always someone better. What I do control is my work ethic and my ability to deliver.
Directors finish films. Though I’ve turned my talents to other aspects of filmmaking in these subsequent five years, this notion still matters. Even when you aren’t’ the director it matters. Who wants to give blood, sweat and creative energy to a project only to see it sit on a hard drive until the end of time? Nobody. Finish your movies. Be wary of those who don’t and stay in touch with those that do. They’re the ones who will get you there.
This is the end. Promise. Thanks for sticking around if you are still here.
Did this movie land me a three-picture deal at Universal? Nope. Did it make me into a millionaire? Certainly not. But even those it’s success was a small blip on the radar, it mattered a lot to me and I’d like to believe it mattered a lot to those who were a part of it. Why and how?
It earned me my MFA from DePaul University. This enabled me to teach at the collegiate level which is a true honor and a passion and a significant part of my current career path.
It made my wife fall in love with me. No joke. This movie is responsible for three years of marriage, two children and the things that truly make my life complete. I literally would not be where I am in the world or have the family that I have created without making this film. That matters to me. It matters a lot.
It made me a filmmaker. I had made movies before this. I have been a part of what I consider “better” films after we made this. But “Four” was the internal affirmation that I am both competent and capable in this world. It was the seminal point in my young career that has led to Emmy’s, festival awards, and many other opportunities and collaborations with an innumerable amount of amazing creatives. This was the threshold I needed to cross to become a professional. I’m better now, but I wouldn’t be if I didn’t make this film.
As I have said a billion times over in this extensive love fest for all of those who helped make “Four” possible, thank you, thank you thank you. People from all over the world breathed their creative essence into this movie and something magical came out. You all matter quite a bit.
Go make movies. They matter.