Thursday, June 28, 2012

M is for Miscellaneous

Usually this catch all topic is left for the end of a given process. But I'm not doing these blogs in any particular order, and I'll likely come back to a topic more than once. Today, I am driven by questions from some very kind readers. As you will see by my detailed response, I am open to questions – even if I've covered something before.

Improv vs Scripted

One very fine question was about the script. Since web series are not as formal affairs as film or television, and some web series have mentioned that much on the screen is improv, why are we taking such painful care in writing the Demonspawn scripts. The question is especially relevant when we have a lead actor who is a very fine improv actor. Were I to hazard a guess on why other shows use improv is that they are not paying for sets or locations and they have unlimited access to them. The number one reason I can't even consider improv as the main method of acting in Demonspawn is that it takes a lot of time. Ten minutes of dialog per episode is a lot to come up with on the fly even when everyone is on the same page with their characters. It can take hours before one frame is shot. Time is the biggest enemy in any shoot, because it is very expensive. We will have one shot at each location for under the typical 12 hours of time. I'd say that we'd have 8. We may have as much as 10 if we're lucky. Some of that time will be eaten up with setting up lights, make-up and wardrobe. The clock starts the moment we all arrive in the parking lot.

That said, we aren't adverse to improv at all. One of the best moments in shooting Demon Under Glass was standing in the rain with Garett Maggart and Jason Carter re-doing the whole scene where Simon snatches the caduceus (oh, yeah. We need a new caduceus). And then there was re-writing the fight in the isolation tank between Joe and Simon. We were in their trailer firing ideas back and forth. It was really fun and very satisfying creatively. I don't thins could have happened until the actors were really familiar with their characters. That takes time with a script. To refine the script and give the actors an opportunity for input on the dialog, part of the budget will be allocated for table reads (sometimes known as pizza reads) where we just see how the dialog sounds being read by actors. Usually we find out there is too much dialog. We also want to have rehearsals after the script has been refined. This familiarity with the material will speed up the actual shoots, but it will also make improv easier and more effective. The actors will really know their characters having had more time in their heads. It's great for the actors and makes the shoots run as smoothly as possible. Contrary to popular opinion, actors don't like to wing it. A lack of a script or the barest sketch of a script indicates that the production doesn't have a clear idea of where they want to go or how they are going to get there. SAG certainly won't grant signatory status to a production that doesn't have a real script.


Another question has been what music will we use for the series. Will we use the music from the film? Jon says that each new project is an opportunity to do something different. Thus, we will not be using the compositions written for Demon Under Glass. In doing the cooking videos and chatting with other web producers, I've discovered sites like that allows for the purchase of a limited license to original music. Searches of this site can be made by composer, mood of the scene or style of music. These licenses are specifically for Youtube. If we take the project to a higher level of distribution, we can pay an additional fee to keep those selections. There are several sites like this. Each one has hundreds of compositions.


While searching for the music sites, I ran across another kind of asset that we may make use of during the Demonspawn shoot. There are companies that offer licenses to use virtual sets. They are 3D computer generated environments into which actors can be realistically composited. The licenses for these assets are very reasonable (from $75 to $450). Fortunately, we are connected to talented people who can do these kinds of composites seamlessly. This gives us some options we hadn't considered for sets and some vampire type FX.

One more question that has come up often is are the actors reading this blog. As of this date, all the actors currently involved in the web series have the link to the blog. I notify them when I put up a new post.  Judging from the questions I've gotten back from them, they are reading the blog.

Until next time.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Creative Buying 101 -- Costumes and Props and the Budget

As we go through the development of the Demonspawn web series, more issues arise that we have to make decisions about. These issues are in the category of line items that must be funded. The question is how we will fund them. For example, do we rent or buy costumes? Renting seems like a great option, especially for the flashback scenes to the distant past. After all, there are some cavernous warehouses filled with costumes from all eras that are surprisingly affordable when looking at an individual garment. But the rental fee per garment is not all that has to be shelled out. Some costume houses require a deposit of a couple times the total fee to hedge against damage or loss. And often, the selection in an actor's given size is not the greatest. And sometimes the condition of the garments is not the greatest (some are decades old and have been rented many, many times). When we shot TheGunslinger, this became a big issue. After a lot of Googling, we found a lot of sites that sold authentic western gear to reenactors. The prices were great and the quality was amazing. Most importantly of all, the actors really loved wearing the garments. That was a really important lesson we learned from that shoot was that costumes – even in the smallest production – are extremely important for an actor to get into character.

We have an advantage with this first story arc, because the flashback is to the Victorian era. Now, like many fads, Steampunk is annoying. Much of the design is random and silly and has drifted from the original style (Jon has followed it for decades). However, the proliferation of the style in pop culture has made for a great many high quality, affordable options for costumes. We can age them if we need to. Usually that means gently laundering them to make them look 'lived in.' The other advantage of buying costumes – no matter what era – is that we're making these shorts and webseries with something longer in mind. We may need to shoot new material. It is very risky to do that assuming that we could rent the exact same costumes. They may have been rented by another shoot, or they may have been retired. That sometimes happens when a costume is either too old to rent or it's discovered that it is insanely valuable. That happened with Scarlet O'Hara's picnic dress from Gone With the Wind. That was being rented with their Holloween costumes for the public! The only real issue for us is storage space. If this becomes the ongoing project we expect it to be, we'll need to rent a storage space so that they can be kept properly.

The modern clothes are really easy. And no, we don't buy a bunch of clothes from stores, clean them carefully and return them. I know this is common for indie films. I've been in a wardrobe room of a major horror film that was very carefully pressing and folding clothes to put back into bags. Each bag had a receipt. They would all be returned the next day. I make no judgment. It's just something I don't want to do. Our answer is simple – Thrift Stores! We are in the Entitlement Zone of greater Los Angeles. Folks here ditch clothes with each season. They already looked lived in, and they are hardly anywhere near dated. The only real risk is having one set of clothing for any given scene. If something gets stained, it would have to be laundered before another take could be filmed. But that is a risk with rentals as well. I'm not sure where actors pick up this skill, but most of those I've worked with are adept at not getting anything on their clothing. Some go through the effort of putting a trash bag over themselves (cutting holes in the bag for head and arms). Others are just good at keeping really clean. I've yet to have to launder costumes for anything that wasn't planned on set. But just to be sure, I always know where the nearest laundromat to any location is. I also have detergent, stain removers, fabric softener and rolls of quarters in my kit. The upshot is that we have a budget for costumes that is a small fraction of a typical shoot. It just takes more time and effort to gather everything together. Time and effort are the cheapest assets we have.

Props are more of a challenge. I hate renting props with a blinding passion. Binding passion, I tell you! First, the fees are huge for what is rented. For instance, a basic set of cookware can run $100 for the week. I can find one by a Food Network Star at Target for a tad more than that. Second, the deposits are even more huge AND most prop houses require a million dollar insurance rider no matter how small the item rented. Lastly, it is almost impossible to get those huge deposits back. We lost over 10 grand in prop rental deposits that were not returned due to 'damage.' We had photos of how we rented them matching how we returned them. Still, no deposits returned. I will never rent a prop again. Once more, I am grateful to the worlds of cosplay and role playing. Beyond that, there is Ebay. We found all the dishes and the very old fashioned coffeepot for The Gunslinger there. We even found this marvelous rain barrel. One of my partners uses it at barbecues as a stand for his grilling utensils. Again, we can find pretty much anything we need through these sources and pay a price that is very close to the rental fee but without the insurance rider and deposits. We can have very realistic props that the actors will enjoy working with even on a budget as small as this one.

As I said before, there is a lot more to share than I do here. Think of this as part one on this topic.

'Till next time.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Plots and Casting Part 1/?

This will be a frequently talked about subject. This is the bare bones beginning.

It is an often quote bit of advice that one should never write a script with particular people in mind to play the parts. It's fine to be inspired by a particular actor or performance. Whatever it takes to make the characters real and the dialog easier to write. However, there are reams of stories about how a film was developed with specific actors in mind but produced with the 12th choice in the role. This rule applies when a film goes through normal development and is funded before the casting call is placed. For most indie films, raising what is needed for the budget depends on what actor is attached to the project. Lead actors from network series of the 1990s can raise as much as $1 million dollars in the horror/scifi arena. Lead actors from the 2000s can raise as much as $3million in the horror/scifi arena. For a while ten years ago, Jeff Fahey was hitting that arena hard in the 2000s until his career righted itself. Persuading an actor to attach themselves to a project before it is funded is not easy. The best and most inexpensive way is the script. But how?

A casting director had some interesting advice. He said that we had to figure out what kind of actor they were. If they were adventurous types that are always looking stretch themselves, the best way to them is to write something for them that they have never played before. Comedians are always lamenting not being considered for dramatic rolls. Dramatic actors often want to cut up. For some, the enticement is playing a particular type of character like a hooker or a vampire or a cowboy. Or perhaps a hooker cowboy who is also a vampire. I shouldn't say things like that in this town. It'll be a series on the CW.

We have a broad canvas on which to create the Demonspawn web series. Simon Molinar has a history that spans centuries. He has known every type of person from peasant to royalty on both sides of the law and every side of politics. We decided that it would be foolish to not take advantage of that history. And between the Highlander and Forever Knight, we had a template to follow. In present day, there is a situation plaguing Simon and Joe. Sometimes, Simon finds a corresponding theme in his long and active past. The past informs the decisions made in the present. Actually, with Joe in his life, Simon is forced to look at his past decisions and choose a different path – in some cases. I say sometimes, because Simon likes to talk about his life. There may be no corresponding situation at all. He may be just in the mood to spin a yarn. At any rate it gives us a lot of latitude for characters that are not only fun to watch and fit the story but also can attract the actors we are after.

But that isn't the only way we plan to attract actors and, hopefully, viewers. Star names of all sorts like to do parodies of major films and TV. They do such skits on shows like SNL. The website Funny or Die is full of celebrity driven parody. We have a couple of names that are interested in the parodies we have in mind. Hopefully, from that interest, we can attract more. The parodies are all films, TV shows or commercials that Joe and Simon are watching. It can be anything from crime dramas, to reality shows to scifi and horror. Of course, we will thoroughly lampoon Twilight, but there are many other fun topics to explore. Not all will be brutal lampoons. Some will be loving send ups – like the way Young Frankenstein did with old horror films. There will be glee amidst the thrills and chills.

Now, how do we get these fun scripts to the actors we're after? We have a couple of options. The direct approach involves running a Breakdown(TM) or casting call. Since web series are more common and often fall under a SAG contract, managers are more likely to heed a client's request to look at them and pass them along. To hedge that bet, we can mention a specific actor in the Breakdown as a prototype for the character. We have connections to a few names through routes so serendipitous that no one would believe me if I laid them out in a diagram. We believe that at least one and possibly two of them would go for the parodies.

Now, to the basic plot for the web series. There are minor spoilers ahead.

The series will begin a few years after Simon and Joe [the full backstory to these characters can be found on the menu to the right under Backstory] go on the run from Delphi 2.0. The events in Demon Under Glass and how Joe came to be on the run with Simon a year later will be covered in the opening sequence of each episode in a voice over by Joe with images matching the narration. Then, Joe will do a voice over bringing viewers up to speed on where they are at that particular time and why. In this arc, Joe and Simon are in a new town keeping a low profile. They've had a close brush with capture (there will be flashbacks). Something about how they were discovered makes them paranoid. While Simon tries to figure out if they are being tracked, Joe is analyzing the data they got. After a while, Simon becomes convinced that they are being watched by someone not associated with Delphi. It has happened to Simon before, but this time there is the internet to intensify the attention. Joe is skeptical at first, but he soon realizes that there are women who believe in vampires watching him and Simon. Mayhem ensues. All the while, the pair are going about their usual routines which includes a lot of TV and movies, shop, do chores and argue.

'Till next time.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Scripts and Budgets

When we first moved out here in the mid- 1990s, the best advisors on film production told us to write what any given story needed for it to be told well and to not worry about how much it cost. However, back in those days, general wisdom was that a writer would pitch a script either directly to a studio or to a production company with a studio production deal. That is what we did for a number of years. These entities have the deep pockets to make anything written on a page a reality. Times have radically changed.

As we considered developing this web series, the first thing we had to look at was what assets we have, what assets we could obtain for free (or close to it), and what do we absolutely have to lay out money for. The easiest place to save money is the script. For example, One gunshot – from a blank pistol – requires an expensive rider on the production's insurance policy, the presence of a fire marshal (at $80 and hour with a four hour minimum) and a stunt coordinator certified in the use of firearms ($800/day). One gunshot! We would love to have Simon scale walls that are three stories or more tall in this web series. I'm sure that Owen Szabo would love to strap on a wire rig and scale a building. It may be hard to keep him from doing something like that, but the insurance rider for that cost more than the basic policy and requires a coordinator and a whole lot of safety equipment. I'm not saying that there won't be breathtaking action in this web series. It's just that everything we wrote had to be run through a lot of research and asset acquisition. It took a lot of creativity that was well beyond spinning a story.

Then, there are sets and locations. We have access to a location that will make a suitable home for Joe and Simon for this season. We had to be assured at we can film all the scenes we need to (no problems from neighbors with parking on the block, that sort of thing). Luckily, it's written into canon that Joe and Simon move frequently. I wouldn't expect to come back to the same location from one season to the next. LA neighbors can be fairly hard nosed when it comes to any kind of shoot. We could be the best neighbors in the world, and someone may still get a bug up their but about the content or not getting to have some of the catering. They could want a fee for their 'inconvenience' or complain to the permit office and block us from the location. It's best not to push one's luck. 

We are fortunate that the city, county and state are pro-film. We have found some wonderful locations owned by various government entities that we can shoot at without a fee. One of them is this great, old timey gazebo that we can make look like it's from the turn of the last century for one of the flashback scenes. We have to hire an LAPD officer to watch over us, but that's cool. We'll need someone to keep the homeless regulars out of the shots. They won't sit still for make-up, so we'll have to move them along for a while. We'll be shooting in a library where a vampire romance novel club meets, and at a really plush community auditorium that will double as a movie theater. All of these are free of fees. They also have plenty of parking and places for wardrobe, make-up and meal breaks. Yes, these things must be considered – along with where the bathrooms are – while I am writing the action in the scripts. If any location is lacking in these basic amenities, rental of trailers has to be considered. That brings with it the headache of where it would be parked and the cost of the fuel, water and the teamsters to drive it ($30/hour, 8 hour minimum and we need two – even for one vehicle – and I'd have to feed them).

Speaking of food, that has to be factored into the scripts as well. For lower budgeted projects, good food is a must. That is one of the elements that we have to pay for. And I mean paying for a caterer. We've had experience trying to feed a crew by preparing everything on our own. It is a hat that comes with too many headaches. We won't even try to do craft services snack table. We have to make sure that they are good and reliable. As the price of food tends to be per head, we have to keep an eye on how much cast and crew we have each day. Throngs of extras may be free (you can always find people who want to be on camera in LA), but that's a lot of mouths to feed. Trash is also something that we have to keep track of. More people make more trash. Some of these folks can be really slovenly about where they dispose of food and drinks. I've been on big productions where instead of nagging cast and crew about where they were putting empty containers or napkins, a cleaning service is hired. Honestly, it can come down to that. But that won't happen with us. I really insist that if I'm not working with children, I shouldn't have to pick up after anyone or pay someone to do it. Keeping the numbers down diminishes the problem.

So, on top of the terror for writers in looking at a blank page, indie filmmakers have to keep in mind myriad constraints to the budget. This can be daunting on the one hand. On the other hand, these constraints can be an interesting creative challenge. The very elements that made film noir fascinating to critics and audiences were born from some very tight constraints on content and budget. It wasn't easy to have sexually charged, hard boiled crime dramas drenched in violence under the Hays Code On top of that, noir was considered on the B list at studios by and large. The budgets were not so big. All this made writers work harder. Many times, magic was created. Actors tend to thrive in this setting, because their skills are leaned upon more heavily when there isn't the cash for big FX and not everything can be laid out and spoon fed to the audience. It's become a fascinating puzzle for us.

This brings us to how to write a script to interest well known actors enough to work for tens of dollars and some great catering. That's for the next blog!