Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Re: Two Left Feet and Getting An Education...

Many of you now know (by following me on Twitter, (@shaun_obanion) that I have become quite close with Evan Sneider, the star of our film and as we head to the Toronto International Film Fest this week, I thought I'd do a blog about Mr. Sneider and my experience with him on the film. Here it goes.

PS: It's a long one.

There were many questions during Prep on GIRLFRIEND. How long would our schedule be? (pretty short by feature film standards). Would there be rehearsals? (yes, but very informal). Would our DP even be available for the first few days of the shoot? (after a difficult negotiation with another production, thankfully, yes). Would anyone from Summit return our calls? (a very emphatic no). What the hell do you do when you lose your First AD three days before a Location Scout that everyone's flying in for? (...get lucky and find a better one, who also happens to be an old friend.)... I mean... there were a lot of questions... though nothing new for an indie film.

For a lot of indies, the biggest question is often: where is the money going to come from? We didn't have that problem. The Anderson's of Wayne/Lauren Film Co., had already secured the full budget, so everyone was basically waiting on Justin and our excellent casting director Brad Gilmore to cast the film, Justin and I to crew the film and for me to create the initial schedule and early budget drafts... but the one thing that was nagging at me was how we were going to pull this thing off. For me, there were a whole different set of questions in addition to the normal ones I'd be asking (and getting asked) on a shoot.

I had never really been around a person with Down Syndrome before, much less had to count on one to convincingly do what we were going to ask him to do, not to mention all of the possible technical issues:

If you've never done any acting, well, it's not as easy as it looks - believe me, I ended up in the film when an actor could no longer accommodate our schedule.

Actors, particularly film actors, have to be aware of so many things. Not only things like motivation and character, but knowing that (for example) we're shooting Scene 25 which is an interior, where the character comes into a room. 25 follows 24 in the script (logically) only, due to the availability of locations, or other shooting necessity, we shot 24 (the Exterior scene where our hero arrives at the building and enters) maybe, three weeks earlier and now we're shooting the room he walks into... so the actor has to approximate what head-space he or she (as the character) was in three weeks ago when we shot the entrance. By the way, I fortunately only had one scene and limited dialogue, so I didn't have to be too concerned.

Things like blocking. Matching... knowing that he picks up the cup of coffee on a specific line so that in the coverage(I) he does it at the same time for every take and every shot. Remembering where to stand at a given moment. When to move, so that the focus puller(II) [ours was Alex Cason, and she is, quite simply, a badass] knows the distance the actor will be from the lens. Then, maybe the other actor moves. He or she takes something down from a shelf. In the other shot, did he use his left hand even though he's right handed so that he wouldn't flag(III) the other actors light?

Take Down Syndrome out of the equation and it's a lot to think about for anyone... now an army of film personnel and actors were going to be dependent on an actor doing his first film in the lead role, not only being aware of these technical things, but of his performance at the same time!

Early on, Justin (the Director) and I had many conversations about this. Justin, it should be stated, never doubted for even a second that Evan could pull it off. Well. If he did, he never let on. He had written the piece with Evan in mind (he'd even named the character after him) and had worked with him before on his excellent short film THE REPLACEMENT CHILD ( )... but, as a Producer, I still had to wonder... would we be able to keep our schedule? Could Evan Sneider actually do all that would be asked of him?

I was about to get an education.

Evan isn't you're typical guy. He's extremely high functioning. In fact, what I came to discover is that Evan, like many people, really likes to break down barriers. He likes to play with people's perception of him, and above all, he's re-defining what you and I might call "special." What actually makes Evan special is his ability to be un-special. Don't get me wrong, he's a very special person... but he has this disarming quality that just makes you deal with him as though he didn't have Down's.

Evan's brilliance is in his ability to overcome his "handicap." Above all, Evan is... just a guy. He's smart. Funny. Sweet. Kind. Curious. Emotional. Whimsical. And sometimes devious. He knows what he wants and he'll do what he needs to do to get it. In other words, he's pretty much just like you, me or anyone you know.

What I had to learn was to get over my bias. To forget whatever I thought I knew about Down's; Forget what I saw in RAIN MAN or some Farrelly Brothers' movie and just come to deal with Evan as a man... which, ultimately, is what he deserves.

Evan's been performing in the theater for years. He has a nearly photographic memory and he is the most feeling individuals I've ever met. He exists on purely emotional terms. He's both Method(IV) and Sense Memory(V) at the same time. He doesn't play the character, he becomes the character. It's really amazing to watch unfold in front of your eyes and believe me, it translates on screen. Evan is, without a doubt, the beating heart of the film.

These are all things I had to figure out. When we started, my own misconceptions about people with Down Syndrome led me to feel "off" when dealing with him... and since I was often the guy who often had to deliver news about changes being made on set, we didn't get along that well in the beginning. In fact, I told his mother at one point that I just didn't know how to communicate with Evan... I told her I felt as though I had "two left feet."

Evan, for his part, never changed. He knows exactly who he is and, unlike myself and most people I know, he never seemed to be wracked with doubt. He displays a high level of confidence, not only in what he's doing, but in the manner in which he does it. Maybe it's from his stage training. He'd often be heard telling Justin, "I know the drill."

As the shoot went on, my friendship with Evan grew and my understanding of him deepened. As that happened, my desire for what the film could or would do out in the world changed. I hoped (and hope) the audiences perception of what Down Syndrome is would change - as Evan had changed my perception. What I learned was that Down Syndrome is really just a term; A way for the rest of us to deal with that missing chromosome. A way to classify something... but that's all. It can only define the affected person if he or she lets it. And Evan refuses to let it define him. It absolutely does not define him. Just like you and anyone else you know, Evan is unique. A true original. To compare him to anyone else who has Down Syndrome would be like telling you that
you are like everyone else... and you aren't, are you?
I soon realized that what I wanted, by the end of the film, was for the audience to see 'Evan Grey,' the character he plays in the film, not as a man who has Down Syndrome, but as a man.

If even one person leaves the theater thinking that way, then I'll be happy. I know it's a tall order, but not out of the realm of possibility. It, of course, doesn't determine the success of the film for me, but it would be a great bonus.

It should also be mentioned that Justin, who cared for and nurtured this film beginning with some notes scribbled on a few scraps of paper a little over a year ago, would never tell you how he wished for the film to be received. Justin Lerner does not make "message" movies. The film is purely subjective. It isn't meant to educate you. It's art. It's storytelling. And I agree. It is. But I still have that wish in my heart - for Evan.

I should also mention that the credit for Evan's choices and abilities cannot be given to Evan alone. His mother has instilled in him a lot of ideas... He was taught that there are no limits to what he can do, and throughout his life, whenever someone placed a wall in their way, she and Evan would simply find a way over or around it.

Here's an example: when the Massachusetts School Board told them that Evan would have to ride the short bus and attend school with other "special needs" kids, they fought... and they won. Evan didn't go to school in classes with other Down's kids. He went to regular classes. Just like everyone else. And why shouldn't he have? As it turns out, that would prove a fortuitous decision... Evan met Justin in High School.

There were a couple more people who brought Evan to this point as an actor... When we were almost ready to shoot, Evan began rehearsing with Amanda Plummer. She came out early to spend time with him and to build a history together. They walked around town. They did their Wardrobe fittings together. The ate together. By the time they got to set, Amanda had really become like a second mother to Evan... and their scenes together are really lovely. Amanda, as many of you know, is an artist in the truest sense of the word. She's a total professional and is just lovely in the film. Justin's handling of the scenes between Evan and Amanda (aided by the stunning photography of Quyen Tran and the skillful editing of Jeff Castelluccio) create some really beautiful moments on screen.

Another ally in Evan's cinematic journey: A fantastic young New York actor named Craig Divino. Divino had also worked carefully with Evan to make sure that he understood all of the emotional beats in the story. He designed breathing exercises and physical movements to loosen Evan up before a scene and had taken time out of pursuing his own career to be present and available on set whenever Evan needed him. Evan also asked a lot of questions. He and Justin had many conversations about his character. He also wanted to understand the other characters in the film. He wanted to know about their choices and how what they did would affect his character.

So, after working with Justin, Craig and Amanda, Evan came to set and was one of the most professional actors I've ever had the pleasure to work with. He was obsessive about referring to the script. He knew it front to back and back to front. He understood where he had been and where he was going. He felt the emotions of a scene.

There was a day on set where he literally had the cast, crew and background in tears. It was a hugely triumphant moment and at the end, everyone broke into applause. He blew us away, time and again. Now, I don't want to completely sugar coat things and say that there were no issues... no tough moments, but by and large, things were very smooth and working with Evan was really, really wonderful. Justin and I had dinner recently with our Casting Director Brad Gilmore and we talked about how we'd like to work with Evan again. That says a lot about the experience. He was, and is, nothing short of extraordinary.

I can't wait for you to see him.


(I) Refers to shooting a scene from a variety of angles and distances so you will have the raw material necessary to edit the scene together into an interesting visual and emotional experience for the audience. Each of the shots, or individual angles, requires a different setup.

(II) In cinematography, a focus puller or first assistant camera (1st AC) is a member of a film crew's camera department who is responsible for keeping the camera properly focused during each shot so that the Camera Operator is able to focus on the Camera movement.

(III) Blocking a light with ones body or using a Grip tool designed to block the light.

(IV) An acting technique introduced by Stanislavsky in which the actor recalls emotions or reactions from his or her own life and uses them to identify with the character being portrayed. This allows the actor to experience emotion in the moment, as the character would.

(V) Sense memory is reliving sensations that were experienced through the five senses.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Re: The Abstract World of Producing...

So what the hell is a producer anyway?

According to , a producer is "a person responsible for the financial and administrative aspects of a stage, film, television, or radio production; the person who exercises general supervision of a production and is responsible chiefly for raising money, hiring technicians and artists, etc., required to stage a play, make a motion picture, or the like."

describes it like this: "Although often under appreciated, the Producer's work is so crucial that on a big budget production, there may be a whole team of people - the Production Team - performing the Producer's various jobs. To fully grasp the all-encompassing nature of the Producer's responsibilities, it's helpful to divide the job description into sections and relate commonly used job titles to their counterparts in the business world.

On an small indie project, one very busy Producer might manage every aspect of the production. This would be like the Sole Proprietor of a small business doing everything necessary to make it run. On larger scale productions however, the job is simply too much for one person to handle. In this case, the Producer works within a Production Team."

"If you think of the Production Team as a company, the Producer is the Chief Executive Officer, or CEO. Just as the first CEO in a corporation is often the founder, the Producer is often the main driving creative force behind a film or TV production. (S)he may have played a role marrying the script with an Executive Producer, or attaching a well known Director or Actor to a screenplay to attract financing. Thus from the very inception of a production, the Producer plays a vital role. During production, the Director and Line Producer work with or report to the Producer to ensure the creative vision is being executed - similar to the way Managers answer to a CEO. However, even the Producer is beholden to the financing, which is represented by the Executive Producer."

So. Yeah. We do... a lot of different stuff. It's a daunting job. In addition to just the day to day keeping track of things (budget, schedule, cast, crew), there's also being able to keep in mind the overall reason everyone is there... the script. As someone who, from time to time thinks "hey, maybe I'll get back to that script I started writing..." I have to tell you, writing is crazy. I don't know about you, but for me, discipline is tough. This blog is kind of a way to get me back into the habit of writing something - anything - on a semi-regular basis and yes, I know, I'm not so good at the "semi-regular basis" part. Focus, for me, can be a problem as well. My rapidly increasing level of ADD is a bit overwhelming.

On a set, as a Producer, ADD can actually work to my benefit. There are always multiple "fires" to put out. What one then has to do is prioritize. Which item is the most pressing? Or maybe the question is: Which problem can be solved the fastest.

Sometimes, a snap decision is the best. On a recent production, we had gotten into the rainy season and showed up one day to find our set nearly washed away, but we had actors on loan from another production and our schedule was such that it would be impossible to re-shoot the scene. Meanwhile, our Gaffer(I) was telling the Director that there wasn't enough light to shoot - the cloud cover making our location (at 10am) look more like 7pm. Now usually you would go to what's called a Cover Set(II). This is like your weather contingency. Rain? Snow? Hail? Ok. Move the company indoors. Problem was we were a small shoot on a tight budget with a tight schedule and were nearing the end of production, so we had already shot out our cover sets earlier on when the weather had turned bad. In other words, what to do? Well. After consulting with the director and my First Assistant Director, we informed the cast and crew that light or no light, rain or shine, we were going to stay on the location and shoot the damned scene. And you know what? It worked. After some subtle manipulation in Post Production to brighten things up a bit (and considerable ADR [III]), we got the scene and it's in the film.

But I digress. Script. Keeping the goal in mind. What is the story we're trying to tell here? Because, as anyone who has studied film or made a film will tell you, things change once you're on set. That old famous quote that goes something like, "A film is written three times: First, by the Screenwriter, alone in his room. Next, on the set, when the Director has to make different decisions based on a variety of elements and challenges, and finally in the Edit, when the filmmakers begin to assemble not necessarily the film they set out to make, but the film they have."

Another job which is key: shielding your Director from all manner of issues. If you're a Creative Producer, this job can last for a year or more. You're usually one of the first people on a film and the last off. You could think of a film as being like a train. The Screenwriter creates the script (builds the train). The Producer finds the engineer (Director), or, sometimes the Screenwriter will also direct his or her script, in which case the Producer has begun to lay down the track and add cars. Into those cars, he or she will bring the crew and the Director (with the Producer and the Casting Director offering counsel) will bring on the talent. On and on until the train is moving safely down the track.

Protecting your Director allows him or her to focus on things like story, performance and "making the day"(IV) rather than the minutia of everyday normal movie shoot problems. You have to be sort of like a therapist, priest, confidante and, above all, protector. This part of the job you do get to hand-off from time to time. Occasionally, you ask your AD to handle these positions while you deal with other issues. In Post, your Editor carries the weight of these duties as he or she and your Director sit locked in a room for hours on end slaving under a delivery deadline.

Before you get to any of the stuff above, there's also the development process - a frustratingly slow, incredibly expensive part of the process in which a Producer finds a screenplay, options (V) the property, engages the screenwriter (if necessary) in a series of re-writes based on notes and then tries to get the film made by then seeking out people who have money or connections to money - all before the option runs out. To give you an example, I have (currently) options on two screenplays and a film from 1978. So far, I haven't found anyone who's ready to make them... but, ah, if you know anyone who's eager to get into show biz, send them my way.

So it's an interesting gig, to be sure. By the way, there are probably only ever about three people reading this blog, but if you ever have questions about anything, I'm happy to answer. Just put them in the comments section and, I'll do my best to answer.

Thanks for reading. 'til next time.


PS - Below, you'll find a list referencing some terms I used in this blog. Within the text, I placed Roman numerals, so if you'll check below, you'll find definitions.

I - The person who, under the DP or Director of Photography, is responsible for the lighting of the film.

II - A backup set the company can move to in the event of inclement weather or other issue which may cause a set to be unavailable for shooting.

III - Additional Dialogue Recording or Automated Dialogue Replacement. This is where an actor stands in a recording booth and re-records dialogue, sounds or audio which was unable to be recorded without interference during production. Voice Over narration, new dialogue embedded in a scene or, simply, sounds (grunting, kissing) may also be done here.

IV - Literally making (or, completing) all of the scenes, shots or set-ups that were scheduled on a given day.

V - Optioning a script is the process in which an agreed upon amount of money is paid to a screenwriter to, essentially, take his or her screenplay off the market for a set period of time. The option, in effect, states that the Producer has reserved the screenplay in an attempt to get it made into a film. The option will also have terms which will state that if a Producer or Studio does not come on board to make a film within the stipulated time period, the rights will revert back to the writer who may then offer it to the producer to be re-optioned (for an additional fee) or taken elsewhere.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Re: Development, Shooting, Festivals and Getting A Film Out There.

I've been in the business almost 17 years now. Right from the beginning, I always knew what I wanted to be. What I wanted to do. It was only a matter of how to do it. I worked with a ton of great people (and some not so great people as well). I learned a lot, and while it took me a lot of time and the assistance of some friends, I finally got to move up.

The process of working with my friend John Humber on DAKOTA SKYE was what opened up the possibilities for me. Like most of my friends, I was (and had been) hovering around the fringe of the industry for too long. The beauty of a film industry education is that you make a lot of friends who will come out to support you later - the only downside is that they are what we call "working crew." If you're in the trenches with them, you aren't really going to meet the people who control the money, which is to say that when you're ready to make your film, you need to search for those people or know the people who know them.

A few days ago, DAKOTA SKYE had it's one year anniversary of being available for rental and purchase. It's a big deal. We worked so hard on that little film and, even now, when I do a Twitter search for the movie and see how people are finding it and being moved by it, it's still a great lift to my day... to my confidence. Good review, bad review... Doesn't matter. What's important is that it's making people feel something. That's magical.

So anyway, that anniversary has me doing a bit of reflection on the process as I await the fate of my new production, GIRLFRIEND.

Dakota had an interesting development process in that, there wasn't really a process. John Humber and his family were going to invest in the film. We had a great script by Chad J. Shonk, another good friend of ours, and John and I simply set about lining up the elements to make the film. When you have a tiny budget and no access to further funding, it's simply a matter of backing the numbers into the total. Not unlike squeezing a car into a tight parking spot with cars on either side. You only have the space that exists, so you just make it work... and hope you have enough room to get out once you've parked.

Having limited funds means you don't have a lot of the toys that big movies do. This forces creativity. Ingenuity. How can we get this moment across with just a subtle camera move instead of a crane? (We did have a crane on Dakota, but not the kind films usually use). How can we get a school to let us shoot on their property when our story is loaded with language, sex and "drug" use? (Yeah, finding a school was a big problem).

All of these little hurdles we survived make that film what it is. And believe me, John, Chad and I would be the first to admit to you that it's faaaaaar from perfect... but the beauty of the film is that maybe to you, the audience member, it may be just what you needed on a Friday night. It just may be perfect.

John, Chad and I had years of experience under our belts by the time we shot Dakota. We knew what needed to happen on a set. We understood the elements. It was only a matter of getting it done. And we did. The shoot was, for all we had to deal with, relatively simple. There really weren't any major problems. Sure, we had arguments. Yes, there were tons of small fires to put out, but we had a great team of people - all of whom were (and are) friends. That made the shoot pleasant.

On GIRLFRIEND, it was a different team. I was brought in by Jerad and Kristina Anderson of Wayne/Lauren Film Company. They had already attached Justin Lerner to direct and had optioned his script. The nice thing, for me, was that the script was still being re-written and, as a producer, I got to submit notes. Justin and I ended up working very closely together throughout the process and, on GIRLFRIEND, there was a 6 month period of Pre-Production and development during which Wayne/Lauren, Justin and I set everything in motion.

Wayne/Lauren had the investor in place and we knew that the film was going. We had to cast the film, set the budget, work out the schedule (tough to do when one of our leads was currently locked in to shoot the third film in one of the largest franchises in modern film history at the same time!) and find the production team.

On this film, we had a stellar group from the word "go." Justin set the pace and Brad Gilmore was the first on. As our Casting Director, he was going to bring us some of the best young actresses out there. We searched New York, we searched L.A. We even saw a few Aussies. In the end, Shannon Woodward became the one to beat and she nabbed the role. Justin wrote a very difficult part. The character is one that people are, I think, going to have very strong opinions about. Shannon made her character real. She was scared and strong at the same time, it's a complicated role... and she's just phenomenal. I really can't wait for people to see her work in the film.

Jackson came on early through his relationship with Wayne/Lauren, so we knew that our 'Russ' would be volatile. Dangerous. I had only seen him in the Twilight films and so, for me, seeing him even in the casting period (when he did chemistry reads with various actresses), was an eye opener. Nobody quite knows what he's capable of yet and we get to put him out there. I think people will be surprised.

Ultimately, what the film would come down to though, is the performance of one person: Evan Sneider, an actor from the Boston area who has Downs Syndrome. If Evan's performance didn't work, we'd all be sunk. Well. Evan's performance in the film is extraordinary. He's stunning. Beautiful. Heartbreaking. And the guy has a smile that will melt your heart.

After casting was completed, the rest of the Pre-Production period was great. We had plenty of time, we "crewed up" with a fantastic team of people and by the time we got out to Boston, we were ready for anything.

Now, like on Dakota, we wait to see how we do on the Festival circuit. We won a handful of awards with Dakota... a few Audience Awards and though we didn't play any of the big Festivals (Sundance, Berlin, Toronto, Telluride), it was still a great ride - though, as a producer, it can be a bittersweet ride as well: Nobody really knows what a producer does these days, and since there are usually quite a few producers (8 credited, in various capacities on GIRLFRIEND), it tends to water down the title a bit and confuse the uninformed. Compound this with the fact that most Festivals are only interested in Directors, Writers and Cast, and it can be an odd experience for a producer on the circuit.

The Phoenix International Film Festival was an eye-opener for me. DAKOTA SKYE was one of the big hits there. We were selling out every screening. For our final screening, the Fire Marshall allowed the theater venue to bring in folding chairs and place them in the Handicapped area and along the front row.

The movie played amazingly in every screening. And yet, to a certain extent, there was an element that made me feel out of place. Only the Director, Writer and talent got the coveted "Filmmaker" badges - and you might think, ok... so what? But that pass means that you get into the VIP areas (where the other filmmakers are) and you are always recognized as someone who made one of the films as opposed to anyone else at the Festival. So, yeah. It can be weird.

Going into the Fall Festival season with GIRLFRIEND, I'll be curious to see how it goes.

Regardless of all of that, the end goal is to get the film sold and out there in the world. SpyFilmz repped Dakota and we ended up selling to E1 Entertainment. E1 is the largest Home Video distributor in North America and produces the HBO series HUNG, so we're in good company. The release was small, but we're out there.

As we wait to see what trajectory GIRLFRIEND ends up taking, I'm so excited to be at this stage again, regardless of what happens, waiting to take the ride... and waiting for an audience to see the film.