“Forever’s End” – Cost vs Quality…

So, I’m asked rather often “how we did” this or that on a given film project.  One thing I absolutely love about the process of making films (especially lower-budget productions) is the challenge of figuring out how to accomplish a look and feel that is right not only for the film, but is able to convince the viewer that the film was made for much more money than we actually spent on it. It’s not a matter of “tricking” the viewer, rather a matter of knowing how to produce something of extremely high quality with very little cash.  The key here is knowing exactly what you NEED and what you can do without.  As with any production, but even more so the lower the budget the project, planning, planning, planning makes ALL the difference.  In the era of modern production, you don’t need to spend a million dollars on a 35mm film rig, or even $150k to rent a full-size grip truck for a few months. You need to know exactly what you intend to do and exactly what you need to accomplish it correctly so that the quality of the finished product is retained and your cast and crew remain happy without a single dollar wasted… it’s about bringing efficiency to the max without ever giving up anything to retain the quality.  Now, about 90% of figuring this out comes from years of experience, so you can judge exactly what it is that you need.  Having the right equipment and people to do the job is essential, you can’t make an amazing movie without the right tools, but you may not realize how many of those tools you can do without 90% of the time because you may not have actually needed them to start with.

For explanation sake, let’s use the “Forever’s End” promo (below) as an example, take a look (promo starts at: 1:08):

While we haven’t shot the entire film yet I think we’ve accomplished some really fantastic results for this little gem of a promo. First thing to understand is that nothing in this promo is there by “chance”. From initial script to finished product, it is all extremely pre-planned and very specific. It started off with a great, but short (2-page) original script/poem based on the actual feature we intend to shoot. The script was then dissected and broken down into production elements, scenes, locations, shots,  etc.. I did several days of location scouting (in Ohio.. where the feature film will also be shot) to find locations with the right “look” and feel (especially in the field and city sequences) just as we would do for any of our feature-length projects. I cast the promo (and film) with actors I know to be extremely talented and have worked with before, so there’s no surprises and little (if any) prep-time needed for the shoot, they already understand me, how I work, and what I expect of them.  The shoot was then scheduled and shot in less than 14 hours shoot time over 2 days.  The entire promo consisted of a crew of five experienced, professional filmmakers (Director/DP -me-, Gaffer, AD, FX Makeup artist, and PA)… five people, that’s it (all but one of which I’ve also worked with before, again, no conflicts on set, no surprises).  Half the field shoot was done with only two people and our cast… Why? We didn’t need any more.  The whole shoot, including the city sequences was shot using only 3-lights, only the exact amount we knew we needed to do it right (see my prior post on NATURAL LIGHT to see how this can be accomplished).

What this means is that our only expenses (other than food/gas costs) were the costs of renting a small generator (to power lights outside at night) and hiring police for our one, 4-hour downtown city shoot.  Locations were specifically chosen based on look, available/natural light and cost. Other than the generator, 100% of the equipment used is equipment my company already owns.  The post-production work was also taken down to the basics. I edited the promo myself, did all the original sound FX/audio mixing and mastering myself on my own time = zero cost. Douglas (our composer) was kind enough to provide music for the promo and a new friend of mine, Tobias @ RaveFX did a nice FX shot for us. I dropped all the pieces in, threw together the “intro” and posted it online (whole project took a few weeks from shoot to release – would have been done in only about 5 days total pre-through-post if we didn’t have to wait for some of the elements to come in, but in all, not a bad release window, especially given that no one was paid for their work, everyone donated their time).  The results are what you just watched.  Efficient, effective, quality, true “indie” filmmaking at it’s best… but I’d bet even a lot of filmmakers wouldn’t have been able to guess how we pulled it off for the budget we did… practice makes perfect.

That being said, and coming into the concept of the feature “Forever’s End” from this same perspective, is the main reason we’ll be able to shoot a simply fantastic, complete feature film for a seemingly minuscule budget… believe me when I say that it certainly won’t look like it’s some other “low budget” movie, our goal with everything we do is to continue perfecting the art (and it is truly an art) of balancing cost vs. high production value.  Our goal is to make films that are the quality of multi-million dollar studio productions for anything but, and we do this on all budget levels, we have a $500k feature project in development right now that will easily look like a $25mill production. I’ve been lucky enough to build a team that is not only comprised of extremely talented, consummate professionals, but also a team that understands how to get a world-class quality film from a grain of rice. It’s not as easy as it looks, experience really does make all the difference, and we’ve been literally working for almost a decade to perfect the process (and still, everything we shoot looks better then the last)… but when it comes down to it, the results are what you just saw in that promo. And it’s not just a one-off thing, we’ve been able to duplicate those same quality results for years, which is also why we’ve been attracting bigger and bigger names to our productions and interest from both indie producers and major film studios a-like.

Filmmaking is just as much a business as it is an art. From my experience, a good Director needs to understand not only the creative aspects of the process, but also the business, the paperwork, the marketing, the statistics, the cost vs. R.O.I. that distributors/studios expect. It’s great to go out and make a movie, it’s better to make a good movie that people will actually SEE.  As a “multi-hyphenate” filmmaker [writer-director-producer] for me it’s essential to keep all these elements in mind when developing any new project, especially when you’re working on a budget.  Sometimes you’ll succeed, sometime’s you’ll fail, but you’ll always be confident in knowing that you’ve made a quality product that was worth the time and investment.

Announcing “Forever’s End”…

Hey all! So, while we’re working on a number of projects (that are taking much longer than I’d like to solidify), we’ve decided to give the ultra-indie route another try! I’m really, really, excited to announce my next film, “Forever’s End”!  This is an “audience funded” project which I’m writing and will be directing (if our funding is successful). I’ll be posting updates about the project every week or so here on my blog, so check back often!

Also check out the film’s official site here: www.foreversendmovie.com!

This is one movie we literally cannot make without your help, so spread the word!

Natural Light: Lighting “For Today”…

Everyone seems to have their own take on lighting, most studios/gaffers generally like to light the crap out of everything, while there’s nothing wrong with that (there are some times in larger productions when many lights are needed), most of the time (unless they’re going for some psychedelic party, sci-fi look, or artsy scene) all they are trying to do is “amplify” or “duplicate” what would be “natural light” in the scene itself (or fake it to “look natural” on their subject where there is no natural light – it’s all about “controlling” light)… they do this by using truck-loads of high-powered fixtures (traditionally what you’d recognize or  have seen in behind-the-scenes of films as “movie lights”) and they have full departments on sets known as the “G&E” or “Grip and Electric” departments (crews of dozens of people) dedicated just to this.

-Picture from the set of Warner Bros' 2007 release "I Am Legend" lighting a scene near the Brooklyn Bridge in NYC-

While there’s nothing wrong with that (it’s worked for decades), my view is much simpler (especially with indie productions) why use dozens of lights, generators, crew, etc to “amplify” natural light when you can just shoot USING natural light? My view is very simple indeed: only add lights when you absolutely need them.  Now—to be fair here, often the camera you shoot with dictates the amount of light needed in a shot for it to look right… until recently, most everything was still shot on 35mm film, which requires ridiculous amounts of light for things to read correctly on camera, but since new digital cinema cameras began to take over (especially in television) this is slowly changing, but still most “studio” shoots (digital or not) still bring in truckloads of lighting and grip equipment. I had the pleasure of working on an episode of HBO’s “True Blood” last year, that particular day we were shooting on location, and what stood out for me most was the sheer number of G&E trucks they had on location. Shooting in broad daylight, they still added nearly a dozen lights… now again, there’s no denying that in general, that show looks great, so it does seem to work for them, but it also begs the question, how much of that was really needed?

That said, personally, I absolutely love the look and feel of actual natural light especially for dramatic films; I use it as much as possible, whenever possible, and that was the entire concept in “For Today”. There was nothing fancy needed light wise, it’s a simple real-life drama and I wanted it to be as “natural” as possible. That said, one thing you should keep in mind is that this entire film was shot with only 3 lights.  I intentionally selected a digital cinema camera & lens system (not one of the cheapo ‘prosumer’ cameras with built-in lens) that responds insanely well to low-light (and yes, the camera you choose to shoot on is extremely important!).  Then the biggest trick is in the planning– specifically select locations that have a lot of natural light already. Then, picking and shooting at exactly the right times of day to get the best light coming in the right direction for each specific shot, often using large reflectors (‘bounce boards’) to reflect light where needed for the day-shoots (although since we were shooting in the winter with snow on the ground, we often didn’t even need the reflectors as the snow did most of the reflecting for us).  Similarly, selecting interior locations with big-windows (corner rooms with windows on more than one wall are best), and exteriors for after dark, picking a location with specific natural light so that all we needed to do was add ONE light here or there to get exactly what we needed light/color temperature wise.  The results are fantastic, here are some more stills from the film to show you what I mean:

-Still of Rebecca Richart from "For Today" - there was only one light used here, a single diffused light placed about six feet from her face mimicking a nearby street/flood light-

-Still of Charity Farrell from "For Today" - no lights were used here, just one bounce board reflecting light onto her face-

For Today: Teaser Trailer…

This just went up a few days ago… here’s the trailer for the short “For Today” we shot back in December:

You can also view this trailer and more info about the film on the official site: www.starcomproductions.net/fortoday

Also check out my “making of” blog post below — I’ll be posting more here soon, been crazy busy as of late, just now catching up!

Shooting in 3’s: Making “For Today”…

Back on December 17, 18, and 19, 2010 I directed a wonderful little short film, titled “For Today”.  The film was designed from the start to be simple, dramatic piece with heart–  easy to produce, easy to shoot and to just be a very laid-back, fun experience. Basically a little passion project of mine to use as an update to my directing reel, and a pitch project for several other films/shows we already have in the works. And for the most part (and much to my surprise) it ended up being pretty much exactly that.  I wrote, produced, shot and directed this project. After coming off of working on big budget movies, studio fare, and producing events, commercials, & features this shoot was so easy to pull together that I nearly had myself convinced that I’d missed something important along the way.  As of this writing, we’re almost through Post on the film and still without any major hiccups. Short film or not, no film runs this smoothly… much less one made for almost zero money. This is a truly remarkable film.

--Lili Reinhart in "For Today"--

Conceptualization & Pre-Production:

“For Today” has become a film of “3’s”  — Now, to start off here, you need to understand that none of this was planned to be done in 3’s, it just turned out that way.  First off, I wrote the entire script on a whim in about 3 hours.  I liked it so much I decided I wanted to shoot it a few weeks later.  3 days later, and now on our 3rd and final shooting draft of the script, and after a couple phone calls and e-mails, I had the entire cast and crew set, shoot dates, equipment, hotels, and all but one of the locations (keep in mind this was just a side project, all this came together while I was working on a half dozen other projects).

A few weeks later, I flew in to Cincinnati, Ohio (where my family is located) an extra week before the holidays to shoot the film.  I met my two lead actresses, Lili and Charity (for the first time together) the night before our first shoot day to finalize (pre-prepped) wardrobe and one 3-hr rehearsal (honestly, we probably didn’t even need the rehearsal).

The next day was the first of our 3-day shoot at 3 different locations. (If you’re not keeping track of the “3’s” yet I suggest you start).

Principle Photography:

DAY 1 of 3: Let me preempt this section with this statement: It is a WELL known fact in this business that shooting anything always takes twice as long as you plan it to, 12-14 hour days are the norm on most sets.  So when I tell you that not only did we start on time on our first day, but we wrapped a hour EARLY, that should tell you the kind of set it was.  Day one was shot entirely on location at a wonderfully donated house located just north of Cincinnati in Hamilton, Ohio – the first half of the film was shot in less than 8-hours without incident (including a less than simple Steadicam sequence which looks absolutely fantastic).

A side note on Cast & Crew: Anyone who’s ever worked on a professional set will also tell you that the quality of the finished film is almost always directly related to the mindset and mood on a set.  In that respect, “For Today” was a dream.  We shot the entire film with 3 Cast and 3 Crew (including myself), all unpaid, donating their time to the project and I’ve never seen a shoot go this smoothly. A HUGE shoutout to my amazing crew: Nikk Sutton (Co-Producer/Steadicam Op/++) and Brian Burkhard (our do-everything PA/boom op/grip etc etc) and our incredibly awesome cast: Lili Reinhart (and her mother Amy – who drove down 8 hours in the snow the weekend before Christmas for the 3-day shoot), the impeccably dependable and wonderful Charity Farrell, and our great newcomer Rebecca Richart.

DAY 2 of 3: This was by far the most complex of all our shoot days, mainly due to three factors: #1 Weather: It was sub-zero, shooting in 4 inches of snow outside all day (my boots were soaking wet after the first hour) with actors in light jackets/wardrobe that was less than “full winter gear” – requires frequent breaks, it’s a bit difficult for actors to act while quickly becoming ice-cubes, and equipment rarely acts as it’s supposed to #2 Location: We were shooting in a public park on the river – limited access to power, no warm staging area (we left several vans running all day with the heat on full for warming up) #3 Length: We had both day and night shots to get, so we were literally there all day and into the night, the day went on even longer due to the need for frequent breaks to warm up our cast and crew so we could all continue to function.

And one last technical note here: most cameras (specifically lenses) do not respond well to extreme changes in temperature. We were lucky enough to be using a camera that handles cold temperatures well, but there’s always the concern that the interior of a lens will fog up, then freeze. – Too avoid this, we were extremely careful while handling the camera, not just during filming, but all day, on set… the camera (and lens) was intentionally left in its case, out in the cold for several hours prior to filming, allowing it to adjust to the cold weather slowly (avoid fogging/condensation in the lens), then keeping it out in the cold (or during rests/breaks, intentionally placing it in the back of a van with windows open – ie: at the outside temp–  to avoid it from fogging throughout the day). This was critical for cold-weather shooting, as a simple thing like breathing onto the lens could fog it up, and freeze almost instantly… and we didn’t exactly have the funds for multiple camera systems should it freeze… we would have just been stuck, waiting for hours hoping there’s no permanent damage.  Lucky for us, we were extremely careful, and this didn’t happen… but it was a very important note in our daily planning process which was thought through in pre-production (even the early arrival time of the camera on set each morning… driven to set in a vehicle intentionally left COLD -but insulated- to allow it to accommodate to the weather).

But back to Day 2 here: The fact is, regardless of the difficulties posed, we still got everything we needed, and what we shot looks absolutely fantastic.

--Charity Farrell in "For Today"--

DAY 3 of 3: Our last day was by far our simplest, but that was no accident, planning makes all the difference.  On day three we only had one, half-page scene to shoot and a bunch of pickups for various transition moments in the film.   Even though most of the day was outside, we were so quick at it (as a team, we just had it down—that and there was honestly not that much left to shoot), and by that time we were so accustomed to the weather from the day before, that the day just flew by.  By far one of the most exciting moments for me, was filming some specific pickups for a short driving sequence in the film. We just simply didn’t have a real camera truck at our disposal, so, as we always do in film, we improvised. I wanted some specific shots of a car (with our characters in it) driving in the city/over a bridge, etc.. so I sat in the back of an SUV, rear window flipped open, with our (rather large) camera mounted on my shoulder,  and we had our character’s vehicle follow us.  If you’ve ever ridden in the back of a van with no seatbelt on a bumpy/less than level road, through unpredictable city traffic, turning corners and stopping at stop lights you’ll know exactly what I mean by “exciting”… only now think about doing it with a huge (very expensive) camera on your shoulder, hanging out a rear window with both hands occupied trying to zoom and focus on a moving vehicle following you, while looking through an eye-piece… yeah,  it was a blast!

That said, we got what we needed, and were still so far ahead of schedule, that I decided to take everyone out to a sit-down restaurant for lunch that day… even with the extended break, we still wrapped almost two hours EARLY.  Yeah… it was a good day.

All that said, “FOR TODAY” is now officially in the can. And get this: over the course of the 3 days, we shot almost six hours worth of footage (for a 10 minute film – for anyone doing the math, that’s a shoot ratio of 36:1.. the average non-action film aims for 4:1, yeah, and we were shooting with ONE camera) and, over the 3 days we were only on set for almost exactly 33 hours (this is not a joke).  We’re now in post on the project and I’m loving every minute of it!

One last note to all you new or would-be filmmakers out there:  This shoot was extremely thought through in every detail nearly two months in advance. As a rule, the more work done/better organized a film is in pre-production the smoother it runs. It is also no accident that the first and last days of the shoot where the easiest.. it was intentionally scheduled that way.  If your cast/crew get overworked/frustrated day one, they aren’t likely to remain happy/stick with you the longer the shoot goes. Likewise, the last day being intentionally easy leaves the cast/crew walking away happy and energetic with a sense of accomplishment.  Even if you’ve had some hard days there in the middle, how a shoot begins and ends is extremely important, it’s what people remember the most – organization and extremely detailed planning is key to any successful film… don’t “hope” it works out that way, PLAN IT that way. (A shoutout here is also due to the Cinci Film Commission for all their help, and Garfield Suites for the wonderful rooms!)

Ok… so, at the start of this (rather long) post, I said that this film ended up being a film of “3’s”, if you weren’t keeping track, let me recap those for you:  “For Today” was written in 3-hours, went through 3-drafts over 3-days with one 3-hour rehearsal–the film was shot with 3-cast and 3-crew at 3-locations over a 3-day period totaling 33 hours of shoot time. I’d say that’s pretty freaking awesome.

Announcing “For Today”…

For Today - Poster 1

After learning of the delay to 40M I got a bit frustrated about not being able to direct a film this year (I’ve worked on some 30+ films/TV shows so far in 2010, but not directed any of them) that said, I decided to add another fun little short film to my docket this year, which I’ve titled “For Today”.  I wrote it in an afternoon, on a whim, (I also had some wonderful input in the revision stages, as often is the case, which made it even better) but I’m really proud of the potential this film has to turn some heads.

“For Today” will be a ten minute dramatic short film which chronicles a single moment in the relationship of two teenage girls in foster care, as one leaves in search of her biological sister.

I’m really excited to be working with a number of long-time friends (and a couple new friends) of mine on this little project, which I’ve dug-out some time in my schedule to shoot back in Cincinnati, Ohio, in December, when I return for the holidays.  What I really love about this film is how simple the story is, but at the same time how much can be said in a single look, one moment in time. In my mind, “For Today” is just one moment in the lifetime of two people with difficult pasts and unsure futures; a simple, yet realistic look at the struggles and a few rare joys of two very different teenagers who barely know each-other, but are forced to live together in an unfamiliar place. It shows their differences, their similarities, and their common longings for something more. “For Today” is a universal story that we all, on some level, can relate to, it’s a story about relationships, family and friendship and in the end, a story of hope.

I’m working with some familiar and new faces, the film stars Lili Reinhart as Rachel (she can also be seen in the upcoming feature “Lilith”, PBS’s new national series, “Scientastic”, and slated to star in “40 Miles”) and Charity Farrell as Laura (2010 CFF winner “Sunday Spin”).  The film is also Executive Produced by my awesome producing partner Michael Katchman (fmr Exec with Lionsgate, MGM).  There’s a new site setup for the film at: www.starcomproductions.net/fortoday. “For Today” is scheduled for completion in January, and will screen at film festivals around the country in 2011, followed by a Cable, DVD and web release shortly thereafter via Rivercoast Films Distribution.

We’re gearing up to shoot “For Today” in a few short weeks, so stay tuned for more updates!

Updates & More New Projects…

So, given the delay of “40 Miles” until next year (see my last post), it’s given me a couple extra months to develop a few new projects that I’ve had in mind for quite some time, and focus more on a few that I have been developing for more than a year, including one of my TV shows which I’ve been developing at a studio for about 10 months now, and has now been setup at a Beverly Hills based agency to be packaged and presented back to the networks here shortly.  Also, at the request of an exec at the same studio, I’ve begun writing two more pilots for two additional original scripted series.  I’m glad they’re excited, we’ll see where they go.

On the film front I also have several new developments.  I’ve begun taking several of my other projects to a couple A-Lister’s in town to see if there’s any interest/attachments that can be made to help fast-track one or more of them into production next year as well.  I’ve also begun developing two more feature screenplays, including an epic Sci-Fi gem, and a 1900’s period piece which caught my attention about a month ago that I’m getting really excited about.  Before I can really get started on those though I’m still working through “The Hotel” (my feature musical screenplay) which is getting ever closer to completion, but is still not quite there yet. I love to dabble in multiple stories/genres at once (switch back and forth) as it gives my brain a break from just being stuck in one “mode” for weeks or even months at a time from a writing perspective. So while I’m still very much writing “The Hotel” I’m also doing research on both my other projects in between writing spurts (well, and all my other daily responsibilities, such as producing other projects, running a company, paying the bills, you know, all those little details).

In addition to all that… I’ll also now be shooting a wonderful little short film of mine in December (in Cincinnati) titled “For Today”, with several of my same “40 Miles” cast/crew , which should just be a blast.  More on this in my next post.

Delays, Changes, and more Patience…

Those of you who have been following this blog for quite some time are likely aware that my feature film “40 Miles” was scheduled to begin production in September. Well, as you may have guessed from my lack of posts over the last few weeks, we’ve run into a yet another hitch with the financing of the film (the film, while it is financed, has run into issues with getting the funds released on our planned timetable for production), in other words, while we were literally ready to go, my entire production staff had dates scheduled to fly out to setup our local production office– we’ve been forced to push back principle photography on “40 Miles” yet again. Due to winter setting in in Cincinnati (where we’re slated to shoot the film) and given that this film is not set during the dead of winter, we’ve been forced to set new start dates for early spring on the production.

That being said, and as frustrating as it is to have the production delayed yet again, it is a very, very common thing in this business (neither indies nor $100+mill studio films are immune to these same kind of delays), it’s actually such a common occurrence that many production companies all but expect the delays to happen.  These delays can happen for any number of reasons, ranging from contract delays to any studio exec or even one producer or even an actor changing their mind, to the investors or financiers changing their minds at the last minute… in our case it comes down to a rather complicated mix of industry deals and financing agreements that didn’t come through on the time table stated in our contracts due to a completely different multi-million project we are co-producers on being delayed by two of the top talent agencies (who’s names I will not list… but you can probably guess them) whose contract negotiations are taking too long to resolve.  In other words, “40 Miles” was delayed because it’s getting financed as a part of a “package” deal that was delayed because one of its larger project’s budgets are being re-negotiated.  If that seems really confusing to you, then you’re on the same page as us.  These deals, no matter how simple they seem, are anything but… in our case at least it appears as though it’s just another delay, and all our projects are still on track to be made, just now on a new time table. – Yeah, welcome to the world of Hollywood filmmaking, every project is in a constant state of flux, nothing is ever set in stone.  If you want to get a movie made (and you’re not paying for it yourself) it’s patience or nothing.

So, while it sucks that “40 Miles” is now not able to be shot this year, it has given me a great deal of time I was not expecting to have to work on many of my other projects, and yes, even develop a few more. So, while I’m extremely frustrated that the film got pushed back, one thing you can’t accuse me of is being lazy, I now have 4 more new projects I’m working on in addition to continuing to push several of my existing features and tv shows. More on this to come in future posts.

Lastly, for those of you wondering how this delay in production affects the release of “40 Miles”, yes, it obviously pushes back the time-table by at least 6-10 months, but our distributor(s) are still on board 100% (again, these delays are common, we haven’t actually lost anyone on our production team or cast) so right now we’re just in a holding pattern, we’ll set new release dates once we confirm the new production dates this spring. Stay tuned.

Regular “up to the minute” production updates on “40 Miles” are also still available on facebook HERE.

Writing a Movie Musical: Music & Inspiration…

So, for those of you who’ve been following this blog, or any of my on-going projects, you’re probably aware that I’m not exactly a “one project at a time” kind of guy.  I’m currently in the process of writing and developing a significant number of additional projects while in pre-production on “40 Miles”, (both in the Film and Television arenas), the idea being that my production team and I will be going right into pre-production on the next project as soon as we hit post on the previous one.

One of my goals as a director is to do films in just about every genre. I love the change of pace and the creative challenges involved and would hate to see myself pigeon-holed into just directing one genre of film, some directors are totally fine with that, not so much with me… I have a major SciFi/Action movie on the docket, a WWII epic, a Psychological Thriller, a die-hard Drama, a medieval period piece, and many, many more films that I’d love to make at some point in my career… but after “40 Miles”, I’m currently in the process of writing my first feature musical which is planned to go into production next year. I’ve currently titled it “The Hotel”.

When I say first “feature musical”, let me explain a bit more… I come from a long background in live music production and performance. Long before I ever held my first video camera, I actually started working professionally in entertainment as a sound engineer and stage hand, eventually going on to become a producer and promoter of concerts shows across the Midwest, that’s actually how my company, Star Com Productions, was originally created 10 years ago: as a live entertainment production company working with more than 90 artists. However, within the past six years or so, as my interest grew into the film and television arena, the focus of the company changed as well. So, when I was approached last year to write a pilot for a new “music-based” tv show, I jumped at the opportunity (this is now one of several shows I have in development at the studio level).

So, with that out of the way, back to the project at hand:  Without going into too much detail as to the premise of “The Hotel” (as I am still very much in the process of writing it, and it won’t likely see the light of day until next year at the earliest), I do know that many people are interested in the writing/conceptualization process behind the film (and in this case, the screenplay). Now, I’ve written about my writing process before (and how much music already comes into play as inspiration behind even my non-musical projects – LINK) but that said, I’ve actually had to take a slightly different approach to writing this particular screenplay than with any of my previous projects.

Keep in mind that every writer I know has their own unique writing process. In general, this is mine: For most of my projects, I will usually start with a single story idea, then develop the characters that will be the focus in that story (in a great deal of detail) then go back and write the story around the character’s I’ve created. This happens, initially, all in my head (with the use of dozens of pages of scribbled notes to help me remember specifics) before I ever actually sit down and put it all on the page.  I am a VERY visual thinker, so I’m able to do this with a great deal of ease, the concept being that once I actually have the film down in my head, it’s just a matter of sitting down to spit it all out onto paper.  As a result, the “conceptualization” process is actually what takes the longest (can be a few weeks to a few months) but the actual process of putting the story down on the page can be done in generally 7-14 days (since by that stage, it’s all already in my head and in my notes).

Now… generally, music comes into play early on, I’ll often build a very specific soundtrack around the emotions/specific moments of the characters in the film I’m writing while I’m writing it, it just helps me focus and get into the right mood to feel what my characters are feeling.  When it comes down to writing a musical, however, this process has to change for the simple reason that I’m not just looking for music that gives the right “emotion” I’m also looking for music that actually can directly be integrated into the story itself, including not only the feel of the song, but the direct relevance of the song’s lyrics, since, in this case, that same song may be performed on screen by one or more of the characters.

So, these new “musical” requirements needed to be not just an emotional part of the story, but actually integrated INTO the story, I have to suddenly look both much broader (styles of music) while at the same time dissecting each song, word for word to see if and/or how it may (or may not) fit within the realm of the story I’m trying to tell. Lyrics have much more potency and importance in this case, since it won’t be just a song I listen to or write to, or a song that may play in the background of a scene or over a montage, the lyrics in many of the songs will actually become part of the dialogue in the film that helps tell the story.

Going into it knowing that and knowing that not only do I need to write a good story with songs that “fit” but I also pick songs that (to a point) are “popular” or “sellable” – ie: I’m writing a multi-million dollar film, not all the songs will be original, the fact of the matter is that songs people know sell better than ones they don’t.   So this puts me in a bit of a predicament or rather, limits a certain percentage of my songs to ones people will recognize (now, don’t fret all you musical-lovers out there, there WILL be a number of original songs and several by new/lesser known artists) the trick is just to find the right balance of “sellability vs. story vs. quality”.  The fact is, there are just SO many good songs out there it’s often hard to even know where to start.

So, where did I start? Where every good movie must start: Story & Characters.  As with all my previous films, I wrote out a general story-line and developed all the key characters that inhabit that story… the concept being that (and I’ve been told this by a number of other writer friends of mine whom I’ve spoken about this specific project) technically I could write this same movie without ANY music and still have it be a high-quality drama- the concept that I don’t actually NEED the music at all to have a great film. This is exactly what I wanted and the perfect starting point, keeping in mind that I hadn’t actually WRITTEN anything at that stage in the game. So, that said, according to my own writing process, instead of then going straight into the “mental” development/notes stage of my usual writing process, this time around I spent MUCH more time digging through music; TONS AND TONS of music actually… but this time starting with music that not only has the emotional impact of the story I’m trying to tell, but also a similar (lyrical) message that could fit one or more “moments/scenes” in the film- I actually put myself into the shoes of my characters (some play instruments, some sing, some don’t) but focus on the music THEY would listen to or even write themselves… it gives me a musical instrumentation/style point to start from for each character and cuts down on the mass of music I need to look through for a given scene or character.  After finding most of these songs, I determine which parts of the film would best benefit from “original” songs and fill in any musical “gaps” with these potential “originals”.  The funny thing is that from a creative perspective, the process I’ve come up with makes SO much sense (at least to me) that when I hear just the right song, I KNOW IT, I can actually hear my characters singing it and see the scenes being created in my mind while listening to it… it’s both a scary and magical moment all at once.  What’s even cooler is that what I’ve ended up with (I have already selected many/most of the non-original songs for the film), is an entirely new musical layer to each individual character, but even more then that it’s a soundtrack that has a variety of musical styles that, much to my own surprise, fit together SO well when I put them all in the same playlist, the first time I listened to it at once I almost peed myself.  I’ll tell you what, while it may not have been entirely intentional, above and beyond the film itself, it’s going to be a hell of a soundtrack.

I think one thing that surprised me the most though, at least on the music side of the project, is that while much of the music in the film is certainly music I like, not all of it is… some is music that crosses into genre’s I would never have expected me to even consider as options (I like a LOT of different genres, most genres actually, but not all), essentially, the music that I’ve ended up with is music that my characters like and not necessarily always music that I like… it not only fits, it has actually broadened my own musical horizons in the process – and it’s all quality stuff. My hope is that this will result in a film whose music and story can have a broader reach than just limited to people who happen to have the same taste in music as I do.

And that, my friends, is the start of a movie musical.

40M: Pre-Production Continues…

For those of you who may be unaffiliated with the process of making films, there’s a lot more that goes into the pre-production process then just hiring a few people and finding a cast. I’ve been working on films, television shows, tv spots, music videos,  etc for many years, and one thing I’ve learned in all that time is that the amount of time, energy, detail and focus you put into your pre-production process, the better a film you always seem to have in the end.  There’s a lot of logic in that, to put it simply, if you solve as many of the “potential” problems or issues (that you can think of) which may arise with the production in advance of it actually starting, then you’ll have a much smoother, more relaxed, more focused shoot when you actually get there. That, and you can then spend your time focusing on solving all those unexpected issues that arise once you actually start and not deal with those on TOP of the one’s that could have been prevented.  There will always be unknowns in a shoot, pre-production is a time to address as many of them as you can manage in advance of actually wasting production time/money or even risking the film itself in the process.  Having a highly talented, detail-oriented Production Manager (or “Line Producer”) is key to getting things done on time and done right.

Since my trip out east in June, Hannah (our Line Producer for 40M) and I have been meeting regularly, continuing to work through all of the thousands of details of the production, ranging from contracts and permits, to catering, equipment & trailer rentals, and that of course, the all-important “production/shooting schedule”.

The Production Schedule is one of the single trickiest parts of pre-production, and one of the most important elements to get exactly right. The thing with the schedule is that if you’re off even slightly  in any one area (or you forget one of the simplest details) the film may end up not getting finished, by going way over time and budget or simply get canceled half-way through production for any number of reasons.

In order to avoid potential problems/conflicts, here are just a few of the hundreds of things we take into account when working through the schedule: the budget we have to work with, the amount of time we need to shoot the film, the cost of rentals (equipment, trailers, catering etc), cost/time of hiring cast & crew, time of year (amount of daylight in a day), weather, temperature, national holidays, permits, each individual location’s requirements (some can only be used on specific days of the week or even at specific times of year), hotels and transportation  requirements/distances, and the list goes on and on… not to mention that since we now also have “minors” (someone under the age of 18) cast in the film, it complicates things even more (since they can only work a specific amount of hours each day, among other limitations) and has forced us to re-work our already highly compacted shoot-schedule. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, we realized shortly after we set the final shoot dates that the film is shooting straight through my own film festival (the Cincinnati (Oxford) Film Festival – which I founded several years ago), so we’ve had to make exceptions on specific shoot days to allow me to attend specific events for which I (and several of my crew) are required. Hopefully that at least gives you a general idea of the complexity of the production, and that’s just the schedule!

Even with all that said, pre-production is going very smoothly, right on time. I’m excited to see things start coming together one step at a time.  More updates soon.