Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Interview with director Gregg Bishop - Part II: Making Dance of the Dead

Part I: Making a $15,000 feature film

We continue our talk with director Gregg Bishop.

So with The Other Side you had a feature film to your name. Tell us about how you played that calling card to get a producer for Dance of the Dead.

The movie premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah and was picked up for a theatrical release. Fox Studios picked up the TV rights where I’ve been developing the movie as a TV series. The great producer Ehud Bleiberg of Bleiberg Entertainment (a foreign sales agency and production company) saw the film and approached me after the screening and told me he wanted two things: He wanted to rep the movie for foreign sales and he wanted to make my next movie.

And again, just so we all understand how long it takes to get a project off the ground, how much time are we talking about between you deciding "I want to make Dance of the Dead" and the commencement of production?

I had been trying to get DANCE OF THE DEAD off the ground for 10 years. But after Bleiberg saw THE OTHER SIDE, he literally greenlit it in about 10 seconds.

Was there any difference in directing your own script versus someone else's?

I’m a huge fan of Joe’s writing so it was actually a lot easier.

I like that you cast kids who were fairly close to high school age, as opposed to mid-twenties like in most Hollywood films. Was actor inexperience at all a concern when you made this decision, or were you convinced that since the characters are all archetypes that you'd find actors capable of giving you what you wanted?

Ask any director: 80% of a director’s job is in who they cast. I told our casting director, Jonathan Spencer, that I wanted to cast REAL kids playing their age, not 25-year-olds playing high-school kids, because that never looks right. I wanted to find kids who were great at improv and that could really bring their personalities to the role. Between LA and Atlanta, we looked at 600 kids and pulled the best of the best. I am very proud of that cast.

Presumably you had more money on Dance of the Dead. Did that allow you to relax a bit, or was the scope of this so much more challenging that it was like a whole new learning curve? Or was it more like, "I squeezed blood from a stone to make the last one work, this is old hat!"

Mo money, mo problems. The only difference this time was that DANCE OF THE DEAD actually had a budget and a crew, which was fantastic, but it presented a new set of challenges. I learned a lot from THE OTHER SIDE because along with writing/directing, I was doing a lot of the jobs myself. One of my goals was to learn as much as I could from that movie, so I could apply that knowledge to future productions, which was definitely helpful making DANCE OF THE DEAD.

(check out the trailer for DANCE OF THE DEAD here.)

I've interviewed some filmmakers who've noted that the producers on their first films exerted their authority and (in their minds at least) compromised the quality of the final product. What was your relationship like with your producers?

I've heard those horror stories too. Working with Ehud felt like a wonderful partnership and never a dictatorship. The team at Bleiberg (Ehud, Shannon, Nick, & Roman) basically gave us great notes on the script and then set us loose to make the movie. They watched dailies and gave comments but never set foot on set. Ehud told me that he saw what I did on THE OTHER SIDE, he trusted me that I'd come back with something good and didn't feel like he needed to be over my shoulder second-guessing every decision I made.

Then once the movie was in the can, they made great notes in the editing process. We were always focused on the same thing: making the best film possible.

Knowing what a pain music licensing can be, I have to ask how difficult it was to get clearance for "Shadows of the Night." Was that always the song in the script, or was it a case where you went through several songs until you found the right song at the right price?

The song was never in the script, our music supervisor Peymon Maskan played it for me as an option and I knew right away that it was perfect, but I was like “can we even get that song?” He said he would make it happen for our budget and somehow he did.

A lot of budding writers and directors have this fantasy that they'll come to Hollywood with their script, be welcomed with open arms, sell that script for a high price and then find themselves in constant demand, never having to do anything other than write to support themselves. Given your experience, just how much of a delusion is that?

I don’t know one successful person here who doesn’t work their ass off. If you want to be a sports star, you stay on the field after everyone else goes home. You want to be a rock star, you play that guitar until your fingers bleed. You have to put in the work. I always believed that if you work hard and do what you love, the money will eventually come.

Given how hard it is to make a movie and "make it" in Hollywood in general, what qualities would you say are most critical for an aspiring filmmaker?

Persistence & hard work. Live life & make movies about it… don’t make movies about other movies.

Dance of the Dead is something of a cult film, so did it open up any new doors for you?

I’ve been totally overwhelmed with the response the film has received. The movie has definitely gotten me into rooms that I wouldn’t have gotten into otherwise.

What are you working on now?

I'm currently writing a sci-fi thriller & gearing up to direct an edge-of-your-seat monster movie that I wrote with Joe Ballarini.

Thanks again to Gregg for all his time! You can find him on Twitter at @GreggBishop and check out his website for Dance of the Dead here.

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