HOW DISTRIBUTION CHANGED FILM: Part 3 of 4

Click here to read PARTS ONE and TWO.

We began doing research on the best equipment to invest in, best sound package, and best HD camera (we judged each camera based on the level of color captured, best sound captured, and overall user experience).  Months later, we had the whole set up.

I was ready to make my next narrative feature.  And I wouldn’t need so much money after all.  By owning my own equipment, omitting unnecessary personnel and expenses, and keeping costs as low as possible, it would be possible to make a feature film for little more than the price of a used Toyota.

This also appealed to investors.  Distribution has changed significantly since the glory days of the million-dollar buys at Film Festivals.  That simply wasn’t happening any more.  A top sales rep told me, “no company is buying low-budget independently made films for more than $50,000 up front.  And if you get that much you’d be one of the lucky ones.”

The first project to test if my new renegade style of filmmaking would even work or not, was an adaptation of Joseph Suglia’s dazzling novel WATCH OUT.  Could I really make a feature-length movie using only two people on my crew, with me doing all the camerawork, and still make it high-quality art?

The answer was a big loud YES.

WATCH OUT, which became my third feature film, was shot in two weeks.  Our working days were incredibly light.  We’d start shooting at 9 AM and on a few days we were done by 4 PM.  It felt like summer camp and everyone had a ball.

The film was highly praised by critics as “One of the great cult films of all time, (MJ Simpson).”  WATCH OUT also premiered at the Raindance Film Festival in London to sold-out crowds, where it was nominated for Best International Feature.

A review in Film Threat wrote, “(Balderson) makes movies that are so gorgeous that it’s not unreasonable to say that, cinematographically at least; he’s the equal of an Argento or Kubrick in their prime. Some people have perfect vocal pitch, Steve has perfect visual composition.”

I repeated the road-show tour concept we did for FIRECRACKER and released WATCH OUT theatrically in 2008 to sold-out audiences in the “Stop Turning Me On” world tour, to promote the self-distributed DVD release several months later, where it debuted at #24 on Amazon.com’s Top 100.

The third and final installment of the WAMEGO TRILOGY on DIY Filmmaking (WAMEGO: ULTIMATUM) chronicles how we did it.

Once I knew we could do it, I decided to raise the bar a bit more and experiment with a cast of all well-known actors.  The production would cost and be the same = the film would be shot in my new renegade style, without permits and in a secretive manner.  There would be no equipment trucks lining the street, no craft service table, no excessive lighting or camera gear, no substantial crews, or anything to attract attention.  The cast and crew would resemble tourists, which would give the production the freedom to do whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted.

With no make-up or costume person the cast would be required to do their own make-up, take care of their own costumes.  We’d all be staying in people’s homes, not hotels, and would have to accept there would be no cash per diem.

I approached several stars, some I’d worked with before, and others I hadn’t, and to my astonishment, they all agreed.

That project, my fourth film, became STUCK!

When I called SAG to ask them if they had special deals for projects under $50,000 they laughed at me and said, “It’s impossible to make a feature-length film for less than $50,000.”  They also said I “needed to seek professional help.”  Actual words.

But, they were wrong.  I had just proven it was possible with WATCH OUT.  I thought about telling them, but decided that they were just like those insecure filmmakers who needed all that phony “stuff” for passers-by.  Trying to educate SAG on the reality of the world was going to be a waste of time.

(To be continued next week)

HONOR AT THE CINEMATHEQUE

One of the most special nights (thus far) of my film career came when The American Cinematheque honored my film STUCK! with a special event premiere at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.  The theatre itself is a glorious complex just down the block from the famous Chinese Theatre, which is another spectacular (albeit touristy) place for Hollywood premieres.

STUCK! is an homage to black and white women in prison films, and was filmed in the noir style as if it had been made in the 1950s or 60s.  It stars the late great Karen Black, John Waters muse Mink Stole, my muse Susan Traylor, Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s, punk rock royalty Pleasant Gehman, CalArts alum and friend Stacy Cunningham, and newcomer Starina Johnson in the title role as the girl sent to Death Row.

Starina Johnson stars as "Daisy" in STUCK!

Starina Johnson stars as “Daisy” in STUCK!

I knew the American Cinematheque hosted events for Hollywood big-wigs and all the cinematic greats.  It was a total honor and pleasure to be included in that group, and be experiencing the event inside that very space and air.

I went to the Egyptian on the day before the premiere to set up a police line-up type of display (so fans could take their mugshots in front of it as if they’d just been “booked”).  I also taped posters to the entrance way.  Outstanding portraits of all the leading ladies on Death Row photographed by celebrity photographer Austin Young.

As an aside, the posters were printed at www.ShortrunPosters.com which is a top-secret place to get awesome posters made for $2 each.  The best part is that there is no minimum amount you can print.  You can just print 6 or 20 if you like.  You don’t have to print 1,000 (I have posters from the theatrical run of FIRECRACKER that I’m unlikely to ever get rid of).

I was asked if I wanted a full on red carpet type event, or something a little more casual.  I voted casual.  There’s something about a red carpet that’s fine and all, but I didn’t think hoards of fans and media would be turning up like they do for Brad Pitt.  I was mostly right, but surprised that when I arrived at the Egyptian the night of the premiere, there was a line of movie-goers stretching down the entire length of the Egyptian colonnade, out onto Hollywood Boulevard, around the corner and down the block.  There were so many people trying to get in that the guys at the Cinematheque told me we’d start the screening 30 mins later than planned so as to accommodate all these people.  It was wild.

In order to pass the time and keep people occupied, I was asked to go down in front and speak for a bit.  I froze.  What!?  I didn’t know what else to do than to take the microphone and walk out there.  When I saw the vastness of the theatre I was overwhelmed.  There had to be almost a thousand people in there.  I walked up in front, made eye contact with Karen Black and the rest of my cast sitting together in the front middle section.  I pretended they were the only ones I was speaking to.

I told the story about meeting screenwriter Frankie Krainz, the genius who created STUCK!  When Frankie and I met, I told him I’d love to make a women-in-prison film.  He said, “Oh, let me write it for you.”  I said, sure, and we went about the rest of our meeting.  Several weeks later Frankie called and said, “I’m done!”  And I replied, “With what?”  (I had no idea what he was talking about).  He sent me the script and I was floored.  It was so moving, poetic, and like a combination of Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, only more to the point.  Reading it was hypnotizing.  And then I made it into a movie.

After the screening, which was a huge success—both technically (there were no audio/projection mishaps) and critically (everyone loved it), we went across the street for the VIP after-party and dinner at legendary Musso & Frank.  The owner of Musso’s had printed special menus for us, and Pleasant Gehman and Iris Berry (another punk rock royal) gave me a cake.  When I cut into it, the knife hit something hard.  I dug into it and discovered there was a huge file inside—perfect for use in escaping from prison!

It was such an amazing, special, incredible night.  As vivid in my memory today as if it happened last week.

Stacy Cunningham and Pleasant Gehman at the STUCK! premiere in Hollywood

Stacy Cunningham and Pleasant Gehman at the STUCK! premiere in Hollywood

FILM WEATHER

Unless I’m on a beach wading in perfectly clear seawater, the ideal temperature for me to exist in is 65 degrees F (that’s 18C for everyone else on the planet except the USA).  I keep interior temps at 65F all year long.  I sleep better, think better, and create better.  But, there are times when I can’t control the climate.  So before scheduling a movie shoot, it’s always best to consider where you’re going to shoot and what the temperature will be.

Dennis Hopper once told me it’s better to shoot in sweltering heat than it is to shoot in bitterly cold.  He was right.  It wasn’t until my first winter shoot that I realized how debilitating it is to shoot a movie in cold weather.

When the temps get cold enough, and the wind chill kicks in, it can be beyond miserable.  In addition it can be dangerous.  Frostbite is a concern.  It’s really hard to operate cameras and things with huge padded gloves.  Imagine being an actor, trying to compose yourself and stay in character when your body starts involuntarily shaking.  Or what about the blood draining from your face and leaving your nose bright red and cheeks pale?  These are problems that one must deal with when shooting in the cold.

There are some dangers when shooting a movie in the heat.  People are at risk for heat stroke and the sort.  But, tolerating the temperature impact on your body is manageable.  It’s easier to provide water to people, make sure everyone stays in the shade whenever possible, and avoid heat exhaustion.  Sometimes it happens, of course, and usually when the heat index is higher than normal (this is like a wind chill but reverse).

I’ve filmed many movies in warm temps.  My first film PEP SQUAD was produced in the humid Kansas July and August.  It was disgusting.  Actors make-up sliding down faces, and several people on the crew just smelled bad.

STUCK! was even worse.  Filmed during early summer in Macon, Georgia, where the humidity is so thick you can cut it and put it on a piece of toast.  The place we filmed the jail cells was on the second floor of a building with no air conditioning.  The owners refused to open the windows at night to cool it down for us.  So we had to work in miserable conditions.  Visually it looked great: everyone a little shiny with sweat and the contrast in B&W worked out in our favor.

During CASSEROLE CLUB we filmed in Palm Springs, and I made sure the air conditioning ran throughout the shoot.  Some people have the belief you should shut all the appliances off, or turn off the AC when you shoot.  That makes no sense to me, because you’ll just add room noise back in later.  It’s super easy to match the frequency of the room noise and air nowadays.  Maybe back in the day this was harder.  Anyway, I’ve never worried about shutting off the AC or Heat.  Or unplugging the fridge.

Likewise, think about other factors such as: is it hurricane season?  Tornado season?  Rainy season?  Dry season?  Allergy season?  How many hours of daylight versus night will you have?  In real life, it would always be ideal to live and work in an environment steady at 65F.  So think about that when you get ready to shoot your next movie.