This is an ever-evolving story of a girl writer and her two greatest loves, the movies and travel. As she hikes the trenches of Hollywood, you're brought along for the ride.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Red Light, Green Light: A bit about moviemaking.

My mom was a Spanish teacher at a Catholic high school. Before I had a car, I'd walk a 1/2 mile from my school to meet her at work so she could drive me home. Usually, I'd have to wait forever-- playing around on dry-erase boards, feeding students' standardized tests into the Scan-tron machine, getting snacks from the vending machine-- until she was finally ready to go.

In those days, I'd sometimes hear embarrassing stories about my mom from the other students. They'd love to mention just how tough she was or talk about little things she did in class. It was during those times I was relieved that I didn't actually attend the high school where my mom worked.

Now that I'm out in L.A. working in the film business as well as collaborating on my own projects [ i.e. writing/producing a web series], it's my mom who shares stories about me with her students. I'm still not sure how I feel about this. Luckily, I don't have to be there to hear them. Supposedly, she says, her students are fascinated by my "glamorous Hollywood life." It certainly doesn't seem all that glamorous to me... But after nearly 10 years, perhaps I've grown accustomed to the new 'normal.' Negotiating Los Angeles and working here-- It just doesn't seem like a big deal to me anymore, but at one time, it was a big deal. I took a risk and made a giant leap to pursue something that I really wanted to do.

As I was reminded of that one day, I got an e-mail from one of the students from my mom's school. She was genuinely interested in filmmaking and wanted to get a little bit of an idea of how it all worked [for a school research project she was doing.] I'm no genius, but I decided to help her by sharing some of the knowledge I've gained during my time in L.A. Below is a sort of transcript of my replies to her questions. The information was useful to her and, I hope, it will also be useful to someone else out there who is equally interested in filmmaking.

How long can a project take to get the 'green light' from a studio?

Unfortunately, there is no quick and easy answer to this. Most projects, regardless of how good they are, may never get a greenlight. The studios and executives that have the power to greenlight a film are relatively few and they are not known for their risk-taking. These days, studios are supremely stingy with finances. You need a name actor, partial financing or proof of foreign pre-sales on the film, a high-concept commercial idea, and so forth. The journey from script to screen can literally take years, and that’s the norm.

Generally, a studio or production company will ‘option’ a script for a set period of time (usually a year.) Many times, they sit on it. The movie never gets made, it eventually gets shelved, or it goes into turnaround (which basically means that the studio is not planning to renew its option. In essence, they release the project to the marketplace and other studios ‘bid’ on it.)

Lots of screenwriters make good money off scripts that are never made. There are so many factors that go into it. Even getting a ‘greenlight’ isn’t good insurance. A major studio can, and will, pull the plug at any point in time, even if shooting’s already begun. A studio could fire the director, then maybe the lead actor drops out because he only wanted to work with that director, and then the film could lose its financing from investors who put money in based on the hiring of that name actor. It’s a difficult thing, but that is why the success is so miraculous for those films that do make it to the screen.

Field Of Dreams is a classic example of a film that took forever to get made. Studios did not see commercial value in the story. Nor did they see commercial appeal in About Schmidt, which was put into turnaround. Judd Apatow went through years and years of trials, misfires, and rejections marked by cancellation of his TV shows, Freaks And Geeks and Undeclared, now cult favorites. The whole time, he stockpiled scripts—which is why he appears to be so prolific right now. After 40 Year Old Virgin hit it big, and he established some clout, he had all these earlier scripts of movies that he’d never been able to make. Studios, seeing dollar signs, have temporarily given him free rein to make those movies and being smart, he’s taking them up on it while the fire’s still hot. Juno, written by first-time scribe Diablo Cody, is a notable exception. From what I’ve heard, I think that it only took two to three years before it went into production-- which is remarkably fast in film terms.

I recommend that anyone check out: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and the follow-up book, Down And Dirty Pictures, both by Peter Biskind. The books give tremendous insight and cite examples of the Hollywood climate during two critical periods in relatively recent film history: the ‘70s and the early ‘90s (The Sundance/Miramax era.)

How does a location manager go about scouting possible locations for films?

As a locations person, I’m more on the visual/creative side of things. For me, the first thing is reading the script through and through: Understanding the story, the themes, and visualizing it for myself-- much like the director does. Surprisingly, some location managers skip that step, skim the basic story, and compile a list of locations and start the logistical process. I can’t do it that way. I’m much more successful with scouting if I’ve taken the time to visualize the aesthetics of each location for myself. After I’ve read the script, I’ll make up a script breakdown. Usually by pre-production, the script is numbered by scene. So, I’ll look at each of the scene headings and highlight as many specifics as possible that the writer may have mentioned and I’ll think about other aspects of the story, too.

For example: The house for this scene—Is it on a secluded dead-end street? How much money do the characters make? Is there a mention of the style or period? Once I have a set breakdown, I usually put the locations in order (by scene) to make thing organized. For example, the main character’s house may appear in Scenes 1, 14, 28, 32 while the doctor’s office may appear in Scenes 5 and 18. That way, I know exactly what portions of the location are seen and the action that takes place there in each particular scene. This is especially important when I physically go out scouting because I’ll know what to shoot.

After all that’s done, I’ll do some research online or use the phone book for certain businesses I might want to target. However, a lot of it involves me jumping in my car and driving around, looking for abandoned buildings or storefronts that could double for a barbershop or liquor store or literally heading door-to-door in certain neighborhoods (for private homes, in particular.)

Once I’ve scouted, I’ll compile the photos either digitally or by hand. Most of the photos are laid out in a panoramic style to allow for as many angles and views as possible. Then, the director will look them over and put aside some favorites.

Hopefully, they’ll have favorites. Otherwise, you’ll be back to scouting. I’ll have conversations with the director and other members of the creative team to fine tune the location choices and begin building a unified vision for the film. Locations are a big part of that. After most of the initial scouting is done, it’s a matter of narrowing down choices, getting the director's approval on a certain location, negotiating fees and logistics, and pounding out contracts to make it possible to actually film at a said place. There’s a lot more involved in that aspect of the job, but you asked specifically about location scouting so that’s what I’ve covered here.

When a film is in pre-production, how is the cast auditioned and the crew hired? Is there a standard, set process for doing this?

In regards to a standard process for pre-production, my answer is yes—and no. Like many things, there are rules and then there are exceptions. In Hollywood, there are nearly as many exceptions as there are rules. Generally speaking, a producer secures/options the material and is ultimately in charge of hiring the crew and overseeing everything. On most films, the producer hires the director as well as a unit production manager (UPM) who is in charge of arranging interviews and hiring the rest of the crew.

Many directors like to work with the same creative team. Depending on a director’s clout and his/her relationship with the producer and/or studio, they can request certain crew people, i.e. their DP (director of photography) or a certain editor, etc. It’s easier for a director to communicate his or her vision with those who are familiar. It can save quite a bit of time and frustration. However, some directors work with different crews each time.

In regard to casting: After a casting director is hired, they usually contact reps of star name talent they hope to attract to the film. For lesser roles, they will release a Breakdown (casting notice) that is sent to Hollywood agents and talent representatives. After going through all those submissions, casting arranges auditions with prospective talent. Those actors usually go through a pre-read, a callback, and if there is still interest in them, they read for, or are put onto tape, for producers. Ultimately, the producers, the creative team, and the financing studio have the final say on the lead cast.

© 2010 by KLiedle

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