Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Interview with director Gregg Bishop - Part I: Making a $15,000 feature film

When he was still in film school, director Gregg Bishop found the script he wanted to make as his first feature - a teen-zombie film called Dance of the Dead. There was just one problem - he couldn't find anyone willing to give an untried director the money to make his film. Undeterred, Gregg decided to prove he deserved his shot by making his own action film funded entirely by the $15,000 profit he made on his student film!

Lesson: If everyone tells you "no," you find a way to do it yourself. His story is one that I hope will inspire many of my own readers to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Gregg was awesome enough to take the time to answer my many questions over email regarding his films, and the secrets to making your own "calling card" in this business.

I understand you went to USC. At the time, were your aspirations to be a writer/director or just a director? What made you interested in filmmaking?

I never specifically set out to be a writer, I just always wrote to generate material for myself to direct.

I grew up on movies like E.T., STAR WARS, THE GOONIES, BACK TO THE FUTURE, INDIANA JONES and as I kid, once I realized that movies could affect people’s emotions, I was totally hooked. When I was seven years old, I found my dad’s old Bell & Howell Super 8 film camera and I’ve been making movies ever since. While most kids were playing sports, I was running a mini-studio out of my parent’s basement. I would write, direct & edit movies and then have premieres at my school’s theater and charge admission. When I was seventeen I wrote, produced & directed my first feature (an action-comedy about a teen spy) that premiered at the Atlanta Film Festival. Making that movie was my film school before film school.

A lot of aspiring filmmakers grapple with the question of if film school is really "worth it." Some make the case that it's best to just go out and start shooting your own material and build up that portfolio. Certainly the proliferation of prosumer digital cameras, the accessibility of Final Cut Pro, and the rise of YouTube have made it vastly easier to shoot, edit and distribute your own material. However, proponents of education film school point to the value of a broad film education and the ability to develop friendships with people who share the same interests. As someone who went the educational route and makes independent movies, what's your perspective on this question?

There are several routes you can take to become a professional filmmaker & no one is better than the other. However, I firmly believe that you can read all the books and attend whatever classes you want, but the best way to learn filmmaking is by doing it. Learn by doing. If you want to direct, borrow a camera and direct something. The reason I went to USC was I figured a great way to get better at what I was doing was to surround myself with the best. There was always a friendly competition between the students and I felt we always challenged one another. Also, the program was very hands-on. They shove a camera in your hands on the first day of class and tell you to go make something.

Your USC short film "Voodoo" is included on the Dance of the Dead DVD, and watching it took me back to my own undergrad film school days. It's a simple idea, it's very low-budget, but it's also visually driven rather than dialogue-driven. Can you talk about what you think makes a good short film?

You said it. Keep it as simple and short as possible. Tell a story visually. Don’t spend a lot of money on it. Mine was a dark comedy about a little girl trying to get rid of her mother’s date with a voodoo doll. Very simple. We shot it for under a thousand bucks on black & white 16mm.

(you can watch VOODOO here )

I understand you ran into a little trouble during Voodoo's production when you ran out of film, and you had to bend (or more accurately) break one of USC's strictest rules in order to finish the film. Can I get you to tell my readers about this?

When I was at USC, they would give students an allotment of film stock for each project and we weren't allowed to go over that amount. But, of course, being a film student, I was experimenting during the production and ended up running out of film. So, in order to finish the short, I shot & process extra filmstock from an outside lab and slipped it into the cut… not thinking anyone would notice or anyone would really care.

But when I turned the final film into the USC lab to get our print made, I got a call from the no-nonsense lab technician who told me that I was busted: he found out I shot extra footage and he was going to burn my negative so that no one would ever see this film. Then he hung up on me.

So I freaked out and ran down to the USC lab to go plea for my film… When I stepped inside, I found the lab technician and his assistants watching a film… laughing and cheering. Then I realize that the film that they were watching was mine. After it ended, the lab tech pulled me aside and told me that I was lucky: he loved the movie so he was going to let the problem slide.

The short is now screened at USC film school orientation for incoming film students.

As I said, Voodoo reminded me a lot of the film I and my classmates made in college. I had some very talented classmates with some interesting films, but to my knowledge none of them quite had the success you did with yours. You turned a $15,000 profit on Voodoo, which is quite an achievement for a 5 minute short! Simple question: how did you do it?

It was all timing. When I finished VOODOO, there was a small market for short films. There were a lot of websites popping up that were buying shorts and several cable shows programming shorts. It was also winning several film festivals which carried cash prizes. When I received my first check for VOODOO, I opened up an account and told myself if I gathered up enough money, I’ll make a feature with it.

So sometime later, you get a look at Joe Ballarini's script for Dance of the Dead and decide you want to make that your next film. When was this exactly?

I first read the script for DANCE OF THE DEAD in 1998 while the Joe and I were in film school together and just flipped for it. I told him I thought it was the coolest movie that had never been made and that he HAD to let me direct it. He said, “Hey, find the funding and you can.”

And as I understand it, you found it hard to get someone to hire a director with no feature credits to his name. No one wanted to take a chance on you with this script.

Yeah, no one wanted to take a chance on a first time feature director and also, no one was making zombie movies at the time. So, out of frustration, I decided to take the $15,000 profits from VOODOO and fund my own feature film to prove I had the chops. That film was called THE OTHER SIDE.

(check out THE OTHER SIDE trailer here. The film is also available via Netflix Instant here.)

I have friends who've spent $15,000 on a twenty minute short. When you're trying to stretch your dollar to the maximum, how do you do it? How does it affect the script? Is it hard to find a balance between the story you want to tell, and the limitations imposed on your production?

What I did was I worked backwards. I made a list of everything I had access to that would give the film production value (actors, props, locations, etc) and then I backwards constructed the script to fit those things to make the movie look bigger than it actually was.

Orson Welles once said that “the enemy of art is the absence of limitation”. We embraced our limitations and used them to our advantage to make a movie that Hollywood could never make. I wrote a story that called for a documentary style approach, which allowed us to be more mobile and shoot fast, giving the movie spontaneity and an energy that most big Hollywood movies don’t have.

Conceptually, The Other Side is something of a familiar premise. A dead guy escapes hell, only to be on the run from bounty hunters determined to bring him back, even as he tries to solve the disappearance of his fiancée, a crime he finds himself accused of. What really made it stand apart for me were the action scenes. When the film starts, you're fairly aware that this must have been made low-budget - even if you don't know EXACTLY how "low" it was in this case. The instant the action kicks in, it's like a perfect symphony of choreography, camera work, editing and stunts. I think if you gave most filmmakers $15 grand and told them to go make a movie, they'd come back with a "contained thriller" along the lines of Misery or Hard Candy. Something that's heavy on dialogue with few sets and actors. Did you ever entertain the notion of doing something like that?

That’s the thing-- I didn’t want to make a drama with three dudes in a room talking. I wanted to do a movie in a way that hadn’t been done before…a movie that would challenge me as a filmmaker and a movie that I’d actually go see as a film-goer on a Friday night with all my friends.

These kinds of action movies are usually made with big budgets and long schedules... We had neither so we just had to work ten times harder than the guys who had the luxury of time & money. This was a true guerrilla filmmaking experience.

Do you have a particular method for shooting your action scenes efficiently?

I was the camera operator and the editor, so that made us extremely efficient. Action films are all about coverage. It’s better to get 40 quick shots than 10 beauty shots. Also, most every shot in the movie is one take. I figured we didn’t need to shoot ten takes of a guy running around a corner shooting a gun. It’s about the flow of the overall sequence, not the individual shots. Plus, shooting fast like this gave the movie a raw energy and allowed us to move at a breakneck speed, averaging about 70 – 80 set-ups per day (that isn’t a typo).

Also, since you were directing from your own script, did you give much detail to the action scenes as you wrote them, or did you just hit the major beats and give your stunt choreographer a lot of latitude to work out the particulars?

I wrote them in detail and then continually adjusted them as we scouted locations and as I worked with our stunt coordinator, Nils Onsager.

Without a doubt, Nils and the Black Knight stunt team brought this film to a whole other level. Not only is Nils extremely knowledgeable and experienced in his field, but he also possesses a solid understanding of story and character. He was able to choreograph unique fight scenes that were consistent for each character all while moving the story forward.

How many days did it take to shoot The Other Side? What lessons did you learn from making your first feature? Was it at all like you expected?

We shot the film in about a month. One great lesson I learned is the power of the orange vest. Whenever we needed to shoot in the street or a public area, the crew would just wear orange vest and we could be doing anything and people would just leave us alone since we look like we were supposed to be there.

The other trick is orange cones. Just place them around where ever you’re shooting and people won’t even question what you are doing.

Come back tomorrow for Part II: Making Dance of the Dead.

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