L. Production Notebook One< Previous Chapter | Next Chapter >

Production Notebook 

I spent a couple of hours at Locations Expo today and can hardly keep my eyes above a squint: It’s not the Expo itself that was exhausting, it was the traffic on the 10. (I hate anything that is in Santa Monica.)

Mostly, I spoke with the film commissions from the Mid-Atlantic States. From what I can tell (and this would make sense) the commissions from other countries are primarily interested in snaring larger productions/producers. The states, on the other hand, service everything from student films on up (for free, in case you didn’t know and the knowledge will benefit you), so regardless of where you are shooting in the US you should tap them, especially for their state’s production guide and location assistance as well as information on financial incentives and so forth. Not that other countries don’t work with smaller productions, but you can see why they’d be keen to get things like Narnia and Batman over your 100k indie.

Tax incentives: That is the Great Big Deal at expo. All locations come bearing incentives that will hopefully interest productions. Understandably, taxes are what everyone asks about: The incentive information is topmost on every flyer. I wanted to talk more with Iceland about their terrain and natural exteriors, but they didn’t have much to say beyond the tax incentive information. That might in part be due to a bit of a language barrier. Unsurprisingly, talking with film New Zealand was illuminating: They were friendly and professional… just really know what they’re doing and have an array of useful visual materials and production experience. Despite having drawn quite a bit of studio films since The Lord of the Rings, NZ is still enthused about independent projects. Smart: Those filmmakers are the future of the industry.

They informed me that there are indeed awesome, natural exteriors left in New Zealand that have never been used in film and don’t look one bit like LOTR. I am browsing their still photography CD now and I don’t know if I believe them. That being said, I am looking at mountains. “Fjords” will probably be a different story as fjords have never been filmed with beacons atop them.

Beyond general discussion, the southern states have been very helpful. I had lunch with West Virginia earlier in the week (my contact there is terrific) and South Carolina has beautiful location materials. (Although they did mock me for being from Virginia: “Almost a southern state” my ass! What’s up with that, SC? I thought we were kindred.) Overall, it’s much easier to attend the expo here in Los Angeles for an hour than to chase down information on various locations across the Internet, phones, et cetera. Plus, if you’re currently doing work, it's useful to put faces with the voices you hear over the phone and all without having to go anywhere. Well, except you do have to go to Santa Monica.

Which may as well be another country as far as travel time is concerned.

I realize this is all rather boring unless you work in production (especially when I lack the energy to punch it up), but I know that one day someone will ask me “How did you…?” and, fortunately, the answers will already be jotted down in this amazing series.

Perhaps it will be the best JSDC true story ever.

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Production Notebook 

I just sat through two hours with SAG Indie.

Two hours that I thought would be long and mostly useless. Filmmakers who I chatted to beforehand were inclined to agree: It would be tedious and redundant and hell no they didn't want to come along so that I had someone to pass funny notes to if things got boring. I already knew a lot about the basics of the Screen Actors Guild from the actor's side of production, but I went anyway because I had one producer's question about residuals and ancillary markets and I wanted specific clarification. It turned out that the entire session was helpful. They blew past the basic info in about five minutes and then the rest of the time was spent on producers’ Q&A. While I did have to endure some of the “What is Taft-Hartley?” sort of questions, most of the producers asked advanced questions that inspired me in regards to crafty ways of thinking about insurance coverage and pain-in-the-ass things of that sort that have to do with the production as a whole and require creative problem solving.

A lot of new and/or super low-budget filmmakers are hesitant to put the paperwork through to hire SAG actors despite the fact that they are (or should fearlessly be) aspiring to a professional art piece. It is my opinion that that is often an indication of how committed you are to your project. Even if it’s simply a digital short for the Internet: If your work is good and you’re serious about filmmaking, you’ll want professional actors in key roles and you should preserve your ability to distribute (you cannot do that if you use SAG talent under the table, i.e. your actor friends "doing you a favor").

Guess what? You can hire professional actors without breaking the rules.

It’s not that hard to put the paperwork through, especially under the indie contracts, extra especially under the short/ultra-low contracts (which tend to be the productions that don’t file SAG).

Don't be scared.

You truly should go signatory if you are a professional filmmaker because professional performers do make an important difference in a film and filing the paperwork will also require you to get your paperwork straightened out across the board. I recommend that anyone producing independently visit with SAG Indie at some point. For all film students in Los Angeles, it is a must. And if you’re shooting your “serious” thesis, I recommend using the SAG Indie short agreement over your school’s student film agreement: That way you can submit to film festivals instead of only to student film festivals. (Under the short contract there are less restrictions and payment for SAG actors is deferred.) If your thesis isn’t shooting for the festival level (in short form) then I don’t know what you’re doing as a filmmaker, anyway. Or you should be more realistic about how “serious” the project actually is and scale the budget back. (Most students waste a bundle of cash on a "serious" thesis that doesn’t help them business-wise whatsoever. Two years later they find themselves wishing they had that 10k back to make a better/more focused/more useful/artful short.) Otherwise, it only makes sense to view your thesis as an independent film in place of viewing it as a student film.

So to all independent filmmakers, time at SAG Indie will be time well spent. I’m glad that I went. To the rooks, just remember when asking your questions that your SAG reps can neither tell you how to run your business nor give you legal advice. The other producers there will appreciate this (seriously).

In semi-related news, the TSL prints were waiting for me in a huge package when I returned home. I opened them immediately and they are so, so awesome.

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Production Notebook 

This evening I spent some time with Film Independent.

I was there to check out their casting rooms and the like. There are many useful things that come with their membership program (production rentals, group consultations, resource library…). Worth checking into if you are an independent filmmaker with a project in production.

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Production Notebook 

There is a garden that haunts me. Unfortunately, its owners have interesting blanket policies about all forms of professional photography. Not that I think the policies are ridiculous: Just because there exists the possibility of exceptions to a rule doesn’t make the rule bad. We all know, however, that blanket policies don’t work in life. Otherwise we would not have a court system.

I had talked to the PR person of the organization that owns the garden and, being dissatisfied with the policy in terms of how it didn’t fit their philosophies, decided that I would drop by their HQ to see what understanding I might gain. I didn’t have a plan or a date or anything since their main grounds are open to the public during the week. It rained today, blustery stuff, then cleared up and there was weather and everything and enough wind to fill me up for a few hours. The day was such in rarity that I knew it was time to head over there.

I drove up a twisty little mountain until I reached the top.

This is the kind of organization they are:
- Open-minded
- Accessible
- Nonprofit (their many gardens are open to the public for no charge)

So, yes, the blanket policy did surprise me a great deal.

As did that, despite the attempts of the kind, sympathetic receptionist there (a gentle woman who didn’t seem to understand the uncharacteristic policy or treatment by the bureaucracy anymore than I did), no one would speak with me in person. I didn’t realize ahead of time that the PR person I had previously spoken to worked on the grounds. When the receptionist called her from her little antique desk in the parlor of the once hotel now spiritual center, the PR person refused me, and said that I could call her at the office number where I had previously called her. And the other person the receptionist tried (Sister Someone) said to talk to the PR person. I wonder: Do many people, much less filmmakers, care to stop in at their HQ? Judging by the lack of any foot traffic I saw? I’d guess they have few visitors stopping in on business (I saw none come in who did not work there), and zero filmmakers.

Not that that means anything.

After being turned away, I took a walk on the grounds with a German nun called Katraine. I liked her; she was... uncomplicated. She had on navy garb in the tradition of their nuns, but with a white fleece over her clothing because it was cool and windfull out of doors: So often this interesting modernization meeting with old traditions, today in the form of clothes. We talked of meditation and chakra and comparative religion and she told me that nuns don’t really watch movies except sometimes, and that when she sees truth in a movie she recognizes it. I recommended The Fountain to her. Also, the nuns play tennis.

Photo Album

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Production Notebook 

The paperwork involved in this project is so ridiculously obnoxious that it’s hilarious. Makes one giddy, really. I mean, do you know what an SS4 or a DE542 or a DS9 is? That last one doesn’t sound quite right, but I’m sure it must be.

At any rate, I am now the owner of various official numbers and licenses.

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Production Notebook 

County Clerk: You’re a motion picture producer, which means you risk your own money to make films?
Jessica: Well yeah, but you don’t have to make it sound like I’m jumping off a cliff or something.

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Task at Hand 

A reader asked me this question(s) via mail:

“Have you cast yet? How does that work? I was wondering if being an actor makes you more sympathetic toward the actors or if it makes you harder on them.”

I am harder. I know I am. It’s probably not very fair of me, right? What you should understand is that there are hundreds of thousands of people here with headshots and “acting training” and representation and, over the last couple of years in Los Angeles, my patience with actors has dissolved completely because most of those people are not very good. Or they’re crazy. Especially actors in their 20s. On the other hand, when I see someone do a professional, solid job, I get even more excited than usual: They stand out all the more.

We are going through casting now, which is tricky. It’s difficult to find the right quality of people for this project and Sci-fi/fantasy/genre/period piece is always an interesting endeavor, I suppose. Especially since many of the more classic, epic actors cast out of London or some other foreign place with more distinguished accents and higher calibers of classical training and we’ve the joy of casting LA-based only.

Agents and casting directors frequently tell actors this, that and the other thing they need to do in order to shape up and catch their attention. I have two things to say to agents:

If your client was on the Real World or Road Rules and has zero theatrical credits, then there is no way that they fit a breakdown that clearly states that the role “requires a strong actor who knows how to drive a scene.”

If the breakdown says “Caucasian,” you might think twice before submitting your African American clients.

The BD posted to agents at 7pm tonight and of course we checked to make sure things were done properly. It’s about midnight now and I am amazed at the ability of agents to be constantly submitting their talent 24 hours a day.

I am also amazed at their ability to throw everything they’ve got at the wall to see what sticks. (Huge pet peeve of mine about the Hollywood entertainment industry.) We see the submissions in lines and you can tell when an agent submits everyone they have in the age range listed, no matter if they do not fit the other “musts” in the character description. On the other hand, one agent submitted a quick note with his one talent submission and it was right on par with the breakdown and that can be quite useful. Focus, my friends.

Target well.

Focus on the task at hand.

Also, his client looks like he actually has chops. Maybe that’s the difference in submission behavior.

Working with managers and agents who represent directors/below-the-line talent is far more expedient, and their recommendations carry far more weight, since they tend not do what theatrical agents do in that they only refer their clients who best fit the bill.

It is my opinion, because I have learned this as well, that what actors do well to quickly realize is that there is nothing glamorous about acting or filmmaking. It’s really about a vision for the project at hand, about dropping your pride and being honest. Every casting director and director wants the actor walking through the door to be perfect for the role because it makes the job much, much easier. You can tell which actors are green (it’s not an age thing) because they are still dreaming of celebrity-suite Starwagons.

There are so many steps, tasks, leading up to that.

For instance, Johnny Depp used to sell pens and hang out with gypsies.

PS: When you look at a load of headshots, you start to notice that everyone has one eye that is larger than the other.
PPS: I hope these fools are ready to have their “special skills and interests” tested. “Scottish dialect”? “Kung-Fu”? “Professional whistler”? We’ll see about that.

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Production Notebook 

M.Sto: I don’t know why your father keeps picking up.
Jessica: Isn’t it convenient that when he’s doing something annoying he belongs to someone else, i.e. my father, but when he’s terrific he’s yours? I know you go “your daughter” all the time to him about me and I don’t appreciate it.
M.Sto: I do not.
Jessica: Do so, I can hear you in California because I am psychic and the wind also carries your voice sometimes. Anyway, maybe he can sense that I need to talk to him. Put him on.
The Grizz: Hello, where are you, what are you doing—You watching you back out there?
Jessica: I am working and always watching my back especially when I’m in my home office where people might hide in the closets and surprise me while I’m on the phone with you the end. So here’s a question, is it possible for you to build me Really Big Prop?
The Grizz: No, mostly because I don’t have a time. That takes time; wood working.
Jessica: Yes but you could do it? I mean, it’s possible, you have the skills?
The Grizz: Anything’s possible. How big is this Really Big Prop?
Jessica: Technically it’s a piece of the set and it’s at least fifteen feet tall, maybe twenty at the max. I don’t know; I need to talk to the DP to see what can be done with camera angles.
The Grizz: What’s this for? Photography?
Jessica: It’s for a film, Dad. A film.
The Grizz: I am available to play the character DeathStar.
Jessica: Yes but are you available to build me a Really Big Prop?
The Grizz: I’m only available for acting, that’s construction.
Jessica: That’s funny, because on your resume it says that you are an electrical contractor. I must have missed the listing for that one time you were in movies.
The Grizz: Can you do it as a miniature?
Jessica: No, there are actors in the scene and they need to interact with the Really Big Prop—
The Grizz: Actors like DeathStar!
Jessica: but not like go inside of it or anything. …No.
The Grizz: You know that those old Really Big Things were about seventy feet tall, right?
Jessica: Dude, I know, but I don’t want one that’s seventy feet tall. I want one that’s like fifteen feet tall or whatever works for the scene. And we don’t need one that big to make it look bigger and it shouldn’t be that big anyway. Seventy feet is like… a giant. This is not Jack and the Beanstalk. Or something.
The Grizz: Then yes, I could build that for a film. Theoretically.
Jessica: I’m going to send M.Sto some reference photos for you so that you can see what I was looking at out here except they won’t let me shoot there even though I talked to some nuns about it.
The Grizz: What? OK—
Jessica: Sweet! Okbye.

M.Sto: He was just here and he looked at the photos.
Jessica: Did he say anything or did he just Grizz grunt.
M.Sto: Grunt.
Jessica: OK, but, what sort of grunt? Like, he’s interested or like, “Not again I already built a whole homecoming float for her twice”?

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Wardrobe Secrets 

When visiting the major wardrobe houses, such as the notably impressive Western Costume, costumers know to wear gloves.

Filmmakers? Not so much. Thus, after four hours in the stocks today, my hands were black and there is still post-scrubbing gunk from “Medieval Leather and Armor” under my nails.

Also, wear comfortable clothes and shoes.

Also, get a good night’s sleep.

Also, prepare to do enough climbing up and down of ladders and pushing heavy-tall ladders and pulling down heavy costumes from racks that are taller than you are to last a lifetime. You should probably lift for a year in order to prepare for any costuming.

Alsox4, bring a snack.

If I experience any success in my life, no one will be able to argue that I didn’t work for it: I swear some of the guy’s costumes were so heavy, like, half my body weight; but definitely not heavier than your mom, (who is huge).

Such robust work it was, my friends, that much to my disappointment I lost the card of a costumer I met there. The thing must have worked its way out of the back pocket of my jeans somewhere between “Biblical” and “Romance Shirts.”

I also swear that there are more hats in the men’s department than there are clothes in the entire women’s department. This is because, throughout film history, there have been far more men to clothe than women, especially in terms of epics and period pieces, which typically have loads of extras to costume. So the costumes don’t lie (but I doubt anyone would deny it anyway): Film skews male; really, really male.

PS: The most disgusting of all were the set of warrior sci-fi costumes made of real fish skin. Le awesome-weird and ew feeling—don’t touch the strangeness!

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The Golden Thread 


There are still callbacks to do, then 1:1 meetings. Those will happen early this week. Geoffrey Owens is running the casting sessions. Actors are incredibly lucky to have him as a casting director: Often, when you read for Geoffrey, you leave the audition a better actor than you where when you entered.

Tomorrow I'm booked with meetings.

Otherwise, it’s all about the art department right now.


One actor, a quiet guy, who read for the part today; I think he knew he wasn’t quite right for the role. And as he picked up his bag and exited the theater he said,

“I think it’s really admirable; what you’re doing.”

It went straight to the heart.

I myself very much admire the people involved in the project thus far, as well as the handful of venders supporting the filmmaking.

The credits roll before my eyes every night as I drift away to Nod,

And each eve the list grows longer.


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Production Notebook 

I have spent hours and hours today viewing demos.

We’re moving quickly, so I have to process a lot of material in a short amount of time. I've mentioned that I enjoy working with agents who rep. production talent. This continues to be the case: They are a quick hand at identifying which of the clients on their roster will be best for the project and then they turnaround full materials; reel, resume, et cetera. This makes it so much easier on our end: Instead of wading through their entire roster, we can watch/view the work of the precise few who make sense. At this point I’m also looking for the Greg Martin of costume design, and that’s no easy endeavor. I have meetings to that effect at the end of the week after I get through casting.

Right now it’s not so much an issue of finding the right caliber of talent or the interest as it is my making the best personnel decisions for the project and filling out the best team possible. I’m also looking at the future, the long term, since this project does give me a chance to work and gel with key crewmembers, so I really want to find individuals who are right for Artemis and perhaps beyond. Creative bonds like that aren’t something you can force, but you can make the best decision with that in mind based on what’s given before you. Furthermore, I'm keen on people who can see the potential and the vision from the beginning.

Thus, one moment I’ll be talking to a costumer or working with Greg on concepts for the film’s still photography (yes, already) or the like, and the next moment I’m looking at catering menu options for the shoot or doing something like researching what sort of rocks I want from props. Then, suddenly, I’m drinking more coffee and eating dinner at 2AM and it’s all “where did the day go” and “how did I just eat half a can of olives?”

Creating and supporting a world is delightful-strange and much more involved than you’d ever imagine.

PS: 1/2 a can of olives = amazing dinner that hits all required areas of the food pyramid.

OK fine: It was a whole can.

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Yellow vs. Golden 

The film is cast and the actors are training. Scheduling has been semi-challenging, but everyone has remained flexible and patient, and thus comes the wonder and the magic of teamwork.

The closer we get to production, the crazier and more exciting things become. My availability wanes as the production waxes. Some things may not be said until after we wrap. (You understand.)

If you haven’t yet come around to supporting Artemis, then you really ought to do it now. Whether it’s a $5 donation or a $5,000 investment, there exists a way to support that fits you nicely. That’s really what this post is about—to remind you. Maybe you don’t think films and storytellers need you; but they do, we do.

I will acknowledge one thing that I find bothersome: The moment you stop hitting folks over the head with something, the moment it stops going! So I appreciate your energy and momentum in this busy season.

It really can be anything we want, you know?

Perhaps more news will come this weekend. I’m booked fairly solid, but may do a spur of the moment Yaplet chat if possible. And why don’t people answer work calls over the weekend? I don’t understand.

This upcoming week it’s all about work. No more 1:1, interview-esque meetings: Put team on field and play. Game, set and match. Let’s arm-wrestle, fools.

Also, this week I’m attending a small screening of Sunshine along with the corresponding event. I do believe Danny Boyle will be there. Should be good times for me. I mean, if Sci-fi were a person, I’d make out with it.

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Solar Wind 

You might know that I love the Fox lot. I also like Fox Searchlight in general and I like their events, especially their genre events/screenings at the Little Theater on said Fox lot. These events are always intimate and enjoyable, and at night when the lot is delightfully empty, save the chance production here or there, the screenings are small and perfect and secret-feeling. After taking a purposeful hiatus I’ve recently resumed attending these events and have discovered that I also like the Searchlight publicity team out here. Since, at this point in time, their brand continues to be consistent in having more interesting, higher qualities of film, and due to all of the above, I’ve been doing my best to make it out when invited to a film I’d like to see.

Tonight was a screening of Sunshine with director Danny Boyle in attendance. You probably dig him as I do because, among others (Trainspotting), he directed 28 Days Later.

Oh how lives and times have swirled about since the premiere of The Fountain.

Tonight, the studio publicist had come around JSDC and Knew, and introduced me to Danny Boyle. As a filmmaker.

I asked him about creating visual themes in film and how he approached the visual theme in Sunshine.

He asked me about our production plans, my cinematographer and urged me onward toward shooting.

As for Sunshine, the script lacks the central glue that makes for a compelling narrative and ties the visual themes together, so of course the film couldn't make up for that and doesn't work. In terms of the make, I found it useful to (as I mentioned) examine some of the visuals and the sound design is also worth study. So maybe you’re thinking it now, too: That I’ve gone beyond all point of return when it comes to watching film and now all I see is production and I’m thinking where the camera is and how surprisingly challenging I find it to act being cold when it’s not actually cold and looking at how another actor does at it and wondering about the choice of formatting for the credits and things of that sort. I’ve become much more technical lately.

Danny Boyle himself is tops: Quite the gentlemen with a unique point of view and a keen memory. And I thanked him and told him what a necessary thing it was for me to be there tonight because, as I listened to him, I realized that I was in need of a break from pre-production, that I am exhausted, and just to hear a filmmaker, a respectable one who aspires to something and whose work I’ve enjoyed, just to hear him speak a little about the process as we stood about under the heat lamps in the cool Summer night with a great mural of Empire Strikes Back hanging in the background like the past and future legacies of our craft all spoken in an ever-present stillness, and his English accent and a few clusters of warm people here and there, having their go at the wine and cheese as he smiled cheerfully from behind his glasses because as I talked he of course Knew exactly what I meant, because he's been there, because he's a testament to low-budget filmmaking and growth in filmmaking and a science to, and in, filmmaking…

And the studio publicist who I’ve just met two months ago, turns to me as I go and says “good luck” and “call me if you need any help” and she means it, and I just may call her if I have the specific need, too…

People are rooting for us.

Then driving through the west side at midnight with the window cracked for air and a sun-orange, themed rose behind my ear that I plucked from a centerpiece and it's away from the quiet lot where all the stray cats are sleeping past the Thursday line and throngs outside of RAGE and cutting up the heart of Hollywood where all the homeless are sleeping and you can tell who the tourists are because they cross the crosswalk in shorts and chunky heels and obvious-choice clothes that co-eds wear to spring break in Florida…

There’s a bit of a breeze.

And that’s when you know to roll the windows down all the way, turn the music up and let it all ride.

It was helpful in the way that only moments can be.

Also, I found out that the bust of some guy is actually named Chris, and it’s totally not his fault that they made his torso look ridiculous as he appears fairly normal when facing me in person.

First four nerds to call it in the comments and then e-mail me a mailing address get an Official Icarus II Crew Insignia patch from Sunshine.

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