Prepare for another indie filmmaker war story. Here we present another chapter in our continuing series focusing on the trials and tribulations of making independent films. These War Stories from filmmakers who slaved to get it done will tear at your heart and might even make you cry. Here, Gretchen Somerfeld, writer/director/producer – [ “Interruptions” ] (or The Film That Was Shot at Grandma’s House) tells her own tales from the frontlines of filmmaking.
[ What’s your story? ] ^ “Interruptions” tracks a day in the life of the Swel Family, who continually attempt to leave their house to attend a birthday party – but one thing after another interrupts them – and they never leave. It was conceived in the style of a play, or one of those European films that are shot in one location and character-based, where “nothing” seemingly ever happens.
[ What does the title mean? ] ^ Although the film is a zany, farcical comedy, in truth the idea of “Interruptions” comes from a darker place in the sense that all of life is “interrupted loneliness,” and sometimes we welcome the interruptions and sometimes we resent them. This was actually written into Wendy’s monologue in the closet towards the end of the film, and although her character is a writer, I cut it in editing because it sounded way too didactic. The title also lends itself to the extremely fragmented style of the film, as well as to the through-lines of incompleted action in the course of the story.
[ What was the budget/schedule? ] ^ The film was initially shot for under 30K: which I funded through credit cards, loans, and money my mother had left me when she died of cancer in ’93. Bizarrely, the “death” theme runs throughout the funding story of “Interruptions” because I was only able to finish the film when two years after beginning principal photography, one of my best friends died of a combination of hepatitis and tuberculosis and left me a portion of his apartment in Paris in his will. I had gone to film school at NYU with this friend, and he wanted me to have the money to finish this damn feature. The film is dedicated to him, as well as to my mother and a couple of other people who are no longer with us but who had played prominent roles in my life. ^ As for the schedule, that was pure insanity. The film was shot in ten days, and with the exception of the last day, those were ten 12-hour days, as the electrics say they’d pull the plug on the generator if we went past twelve. They were doing the project as a favor to the D.P. and me and were professionals working in the industry. Most crew members were paid nothing, some a mere pittance. It’s important for people out there considering this kind of insane venture to understand that people who have a creative stake in the project (i.e. D.P., Production Designer, Costume Designer, Composer, Editor) are much easier to get for free because you’re providing an opportunity for them to show off their creative skills, but others, namely pure technicians, have very little at stake – probably only making the contact with the department head who hires them. It became quickly apparent to me that the people we would have to pay something to would be the electrics, grips, sound mixer, boom operators, and often, the camera assistants. These crew people would get anything from $75-$200 a day, because we couldn’t take the chance of them not showing up at the last minute and therefore not being able to shoot. When you think of a motion picture set, the first image that often comes to mind is the camera and the actors, but the hard reality is it’s the c-stand and the boom. ^ For economical reasons, I had written the script to shoot at my grandmother’s (Nana) house in the Laurel Canyon section of Studio City. The house has this wild décor (which she thinks is really happening) and my art director friends have always been amazed by this funky place. Included in my budget was a round-trip ticket for her to go to Chicago to visit relatives. She was actually all into the fact that her house was going to be in a movie. She’s a very modern woman, but she’s also a control freak, and if she had been there during the shoot to see 50 or so people (including bald “surf nazi” grips) moving through her precious home, she would have had a heart attack. Fortunately, her vision’s not too great, so she still hasn’t noticed several glued-together, broken ceramic figures, as well as the ceiling wallpaper in her breakfast nook which was painted over due to burns from a badly-placed light.
[ Did you sacrifice anything because of this budget? ] ^ I’ll tell you what I sacrificed, because this is important for people to know: I sacrificed having a consistent ensemble of talent. At the time we began principal photography, I could not for the life of me get a SAG contract with the budget I had. My mistake, perhaps, because I had written too many roles for such a small (i.e. cheap) film. At the time, I was undaunted and just figured we’d use either SAG actors who were willing to work non-union, or non SAG actors. Big mistake: especially when you have key roles for little kids, grandpas, and middle-aged suburban parents. These people are way too freaked-out to work non-union and are duly intimidated by SAG to even consider it. In New York, where I did my two shorts, it’s a bit different; actors are willing to take more chances just to work. So what I wound up with was an ensemble of uneven performances. My lead, Kelly Maguire, is a fabulous actress and I was blown away at how good and professional she was considering this was her first film. She comes from the stage and was Sanford Meisner’s last protégé before he died. Kelly is also a very intelligent actress and was able to really contribute to the film in terms of improvisation, which is the way I like to work. My rehearsal process is mostly all improv, as it is my belief that if the actors know their characters, and their relationship to the other characters, great things are possible. Many of the best moments in “Interruptions” are when I was able to throw two characters in one of the rooms at Nana’s house, give them a situation, roll the camera, and let them “play.” I learned this from a director I used to work with, Henry Jaglom, who’s a nut but who turned me onto this valuable technique. In addition to Kelly, Kirk Woller (Ernie, the handyman) and Beth Grant (Peggy, the drunken mistress) are also brilliant in improvisation. I consider myself to be quite savvy, and creative, in post-production and although I was able to cut around many of the other performances, and do extensive ADR, I still think there is an unevenness’ to the ensemble which will always kill me, although I know I did the best I possibly could with the footage that I had. ^ Another sacrifice that had to be made was that with the exception of two or three shots, the camera always had to be on a tripod because my D.P., Stacey Cohen-Maitre, was five months pregnant at the time of the shoot. At the time, I naively felt that if we could get the movement orchestrated right inside the frame it would make up for the lack of camera movement. Well the problem with that is it takes quite a bit of rehearsal (i.e. time) and an ensemble of actors who are all working on the same level. There was no question that I would do the film with Stacey – we had come up together, since NYU, and she’s a brilliant, highly creative, and tough woman. In addition to Stacey’s condition, I didn’t have the money or the time to set up, or be able to light a large area, and use a dolly or some type of jib arm – so I ignorantly underestimated the power of the moving camera. If I had to do it again, with that budget and schedule, I’d do the whole thing hand-held…especially if all your actors are not on the same wavelength, a moving camera will help make up for any lack of rhythm in the performance. ^ I would also say that it was too stressful for me to shoot at my grandmother’s house. At times I found my attention would be focused on who had made scruff marks on the grandfather clock instead of what was the dynamic of the scene. In addition, we couldn’t afford to get a permit as Nana’s house is in the “fire hazard” area of Laurel Canyon and to get a permit (along with the retired fireman on duty that it required) would have actually cost close to the price of the entire shoot. So I was constantly worried that the nosy neighbors were going to report us and we’d be shut down. I had a P.A. posted permanently outside the house with a walkie, who would deliver little goodies to the neighbors’ doors every morning and keep us apprised of any irate individuals.
[ Why did I do it? ] ^ This is very deep as it begs the question of why I live the life I do. I’m one of those crazies who wrote, directed, and produced my first play at 11 – with a cast of 36 (again, too many roles!) My father’s a playwright, and I had been involved in theatre in one way or another most of my life. I had come out of NYU with a short, “P.A.,” that seemed to open many doors, but not enough to get a job. I then got a grant from the AFI to do my second short “Café,” which got me an agent…but still, no chance at making my livelihood at doing what I do (my personal definition of “success”). Since NYU, I’ve made my nut working in production as everything from a production manager to a still photographer. And I work just enough to get by – my own projects always being the priority. When my mother passed away and left me some money, I thought of doing another short, and then a friend woke me up to the fact that I should grab the bull by the horns and just do a no-budg. feature. Easier said than done. The problem in my case is I set out doing a film that I had no money to edit, let alone finish. I had an editor lined up, who cut a sleazy late-night TV show and really wanted to get into features, but when he was actually confronted with the rolls of dailies and the task of carving out a full-length piece, he freaked and actually wound up giving me a $1,000 to get out of it! After he (to remain nameless) jumped ship, I did the first cut of “Interruptions” on a prehistoric 3/4″ to 3/4″ video editing system that I rented from EZTV for two weeks. Then I began on an odyssey of employing (yes, I had to pay them something) five other different editors to finish the thing over the course of two years. It took that long because I could only afford to pay them for a week here and a week there, and then there was always the storage dilemma on the Avid – that we couldn’t afford to keep the footage for a feature on an Avid drive for a long time. Sometimes we had to edit in the middle of the night (which was done with editor/filmmaker Robert Meyer Burnett who did the wonderful “Free Enterprise” as well), and that’s how I learned to sleep during the day with the aid of an airplane sleep mask. Although there were many editors on the film, I don’t think it’s apparent, as I am extremely involved in that process and am there for every cut that takes place. ^ The long and short of it is that the film took me several years to complete: I shot, I raised some money, I edited, I shot, I edited, raised money, etc. – some pick-ups were shot two years after principal photography and we had to employ wigs, re-rent costumes, use body-doubles, and I had to bring in three more D.P.’s for various sequences when Stacey wasn’t available. Of course, if done correctly, that is the magic of movies, and I’m quite pleased with the fact that there are no glaring continuity areas considering the craziness with which this was done (I also had to send Nana away on some weekend trips to accomplish this as well). But I remember sometimes I’d break down and cry and thought I’d never get to the finish line, which at one point became the priority even though I knew it wouldn’t be the most amazing film to ever hit the screen.
[ What is the current status of the film? ] ^ “Interruptions” is currently repped for foreign distribution by RGH/Lion’s Share Pictures who are at Cannes this week trying to sell the film at the market. I have had the good fortune to sell both my shorts to European television (Canal+, Arte) and hope I can do the same with the feature. I went with RGH/Lions Share as they seemed to be genuinely enthusiastic about pushing the film and making some sales – they also handled foreign on the indie film “Mascara,” which was made by a woman I know, Linda Kandel. I am also in the process of making a deal for airlines – upscale airlines that buy films for their passengers who have access to the Personal Video Systems. I had a U.S. rep who shopped it around a bit but wasn’t able to do much so I’m looking for a new domestic rep. I’ve been made a proposal by sightsound.com for Internet rental (they seem like a great company!), but I’m not quite ready to go Internet yet. I have also had the good luck to have a DVD made of the film for free by a graphics company who needed a prototype to break into the DVD business. It has the full film, the trailer, my short film “P.A.,” and a 15-minute segment of amusing behind-the-scenes footage. I’m going to try to get someone to distribute it in some DVD indie anthology.
[ Do you have any advice or pearls of filmmaking wisdom? ] ^ Of course, there’s always much one can say in retrospect…in addition to not writing too many roles – or if you do, write them for actors in their 20’s and 30’s as these people are the most likely to go with it for the art and are likely to be the most “cool” working on a guerilla production – I’d say make sure you have some money in place for post. I went through such a difficult time finishing this film that I got to a point where I was giving French lessons in exchange for telecine and for a brief moment, even considered having a baby on the black market to get my hands on $25,000. I truly believe that this drawn-out process worked against me and if I was able to finish “Interruptions” two years earlier I wouldn’t be holding a product that has difficulty finding a place. And now the marketplace is so inundated! There was a window up until about ’96 when if you made one of these “homemade” features, and it had something to say despite its shortcomings, you could probably do something with it, or at least get people to take you seriously enough to give you a job directing another feature. Since that time, everyone in America is making their own feature film – it’s become like the garage bands of the 80’s. In addition, I’d say don’t be silly enough to shoot on Super 16 if you have no money. To shoot on regular 16mm was one of the smart decisions I made, because at least I was able to scrounge up the money to make a print, be able to project it, and enter it in film festivals. It cost way too much money for someone who’s in a “small fry” situation to make a 35mm blow up from Super 16 film, although I recently saw a colleague circumvent this problem by doing a Beta SP video transfer of his Super 16 cut, and use that for video projection at film festivals. Now he’s trying to get a distribution deal that will include his blow-up to a print, but again, in this crowded marketplace, I think you’re creating a more difficult situation for yourself. ^ One more thing: be careful with the Studio Teacher bullshit if you’re using kids. I tried to do the right thing: got all my insurance, workman’s comp, and brought on board a Studio Teacher because God forbid something should happen to the kids, there was no teacher there, and the parents decide to sue – I would be in big s**t. But it turned out to be a big mistake. This particular teacher became very militant after a couple of days and started telling what I could and could not put in the film (after she and the parents read the script and okayed it) Under duress, (after a harrowing 15 hour day) she made me a sign a release that I would not use the shot where the little girl says “F**k you” (as written) in my final cut. I signed the damned thing, then disregarded it. I felt like Daniel Day-Lewis in “The Name of the Father” – being forced to sign or my life depended on it.
[ Was it worth it? ] ^ It was worth it in the sense that now I have directed a feature, and in this country at least (as opposed to Europe), people take you a lot more seriously. Although I only use the trailer on my demo. reel (along with excerpts from my shorts), it catapults you into another category having done a feature. My reservations about having done a feature in this guerilla way was that my limitations (in my case, mostly casting) hindered me from making the best film I could make from the script I’d written – a script which I’m quite proud ot. Also, there’s something to be said for taking the risk and going out and just doing it. On one hand, I think my self-confidence has taken a hit being left with a feature that I think does not adequately represent my talent, on the other hand, if I manage to pull myself up by the bootstraps again, the difficult lessons I learned from this harrowing experience will have definitely made me a better filmmaker.
[ What’s next? ] ^ Well I guess I am recovering because I’m planning on making another film! Actually, I have three areas of pursuit. The first would be doing this next feature (on DV) which would also star Kelly Maguire from “Interruptions.” I’m working out the script with my sister (portrayed as the middle sister in “Interruptions”), and I can only say it’s got a story somewhat similar to “How to Marry a Millionaire,” but done in the tone and style of “Stranger Than Paradise,” as crazy as that sounds. I am also pursuing writing television comedy, as I’ve discovered I have a real knack for writing that kind of banter (and hell, it’s lucrative), and I am also trying to option the film rights to a novel which I believe has amazing commercial potential and which I’d shop around to the studios as a producer.
[ FILMMAKING’S WORST CASE SCENARIOS ] ^ The following is a list of “Worst Case Scenarios” which I made the night before principal photography on “Interruptions” in order to be able to get my fears on paper and laugh at them:
– Fireball starts at generator, travels into house, kills everyone, Nana is sued upon returning from Chicago. ^ – Earthquake shatters everything and HMI falls on youngest child’s head the day we couldn’t afford to hire the studio teacher. ^ – Cadillac is totaled. ^ – Stacey goes into labor. ^ – Camera breaks. ^ – Nagra breaks. ^ – Lab fucks up film. ^ – Faulty film stock. ^ – Food poisoning en masse. ^ – Kelly (Maguire) and John (Desiderio – casting director and Kelly’s husband) get in a massive fight and she doesn’t show up for work. ^ – Busted by Child Labor Board. ^ – Running time of film turns out to be only a half an hour. ^ – Checkbook gets stolen and account gets wiped out overnight. ^ – Gretchen is suddenly afflicted with debilitating disease. ^ – Dog can’t perform and persists in looking at camera. ^ – Craig (Prod. Manager) gets fed up (or gets a better gig) and walks off. ^ – New Wooden hallway floor is ruined. ^ – New plastic kitchen floor is ruined. ^ – Make-Up sucks and all cast looks like ghouls. ^ – We get reported to the Animal Board. ^ – Dog is killed during shooting. ^ – Gardener and/or Pool Man snitches on us to the County. ^ – Sprinklers (on a timer) go on near lights – starts an electrical current and electrocutes everyone (including kids and studio teacher). ^ – Coffee is awful all week. ^ – Sound sucks – unusable. ^ – Cast and crew members wind up sleeping with or hating each other. ^ – Someone steals my story, shoots their own film and finishes it before I do. ^ – Gretchen gets so depressed, frightened or overwhelmed during pre-menstrual syndrome that she completely shuts down creatively. ^ – Impossible to cut negative because of incorrect key code during telecine. ^ – I am plunged into lifetime debt and/or bankruptcy because of the film. ^ – I have an affair with a cast or crew member and get totally f****d over. ^ – Rat attack (rabies, insurance claims, etc.). ^ – Valuables stolen from Nana’s house. ^ – Another friend or relative dies. ^ – I am somehow maimed or dismembered during shoot. ^ – Probably due to the neighborhood fire, Nana disowns me and/or makes me feel like a worthless piece of s**t for the rest of my life. ^ – Everything’s out of focus.
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