26 October 2010


In working on Up Country, one of the things we take seriously is the idea that the backers are partners with us, in a way. Without their support, the film would never have happened. We think of them as part of the crew. So, when we were working on wardrobe for the film, it occurred to me that our main character would very likely be wearing a t-shirt for most of the film, and what would be better than getting a small t-shirt business to use our film to advertise their wares? They get free advertisement. We get free wardrobe that we don't have to worry about clearing. Win-win.

Well, as luck would have it, one of our backers runs a t-shirt company, so I emailed him and rather than just grab a shirt off the rack, he took the initiative and designed a new one (I told you our backers were the best), based on the descriptions we gave him of the character and what sort of shirt he might wear.

So...for the first time anywhere....we give you Pandaphones
Adam Woods (that's the backer's name) gave us a couple of these (helps with continuity) and man they took a beating. But, you know what? They performed beautifully. Kieran Roberts went on and on about how comfortable they were. We actually had trouble getting them to stay dirty, which is a good quality to have in a shirt.

And now, they're available for you to purchase from Dotted Line Shirts:


Just think of how cool you'll feel wearing this shirt on your next trip through the woods. Hopefully it, um, goes better for you than it did for our main character. If you were one of the backers, you had a chance to get this on the cheap, but they're still a hell of a good deal. So go, buy a t-shirt! Be the first in your town to have one!


Also, we're now revealing the first couple of stills from the film, unveiled with the shirt because, you know, they include the shirt. Keep in mind that these are raw images that haven't been color corrected in any way yet.

**It's harder than you think to pick these. You don't want to give too much away too soon, but you still want to be evocative of the film itself.**

Left to Right: Kieran Roberts, Jonny Mars, and Tyler Peck

Tyler Peck (unhappy)

kieran inside camp
Kieran Roberts investigates

back to back
Jonny Mars and Kieran Roberts

Kieran water from tree
Kieran Roberts (thirsty)

Remember, you can follow Up Country on Facebook and follow the following cast and crew members on Twitter, where we post stuff under the #upcountrymovie hashtag:

Lucas McNelly (@lmcnelly)
Kieran Roberts (@KieranNYCLA)
Dustin Pearlman (@dustinpearlman)

19 October 2010

Casting, minus the couch

photo credit: snapchick.com

While the edit of Up Country plugs along, I'm directing some of my attention to my next project(s), in the hopes of avoiding a long gap that I've found becomes harder and harder to end the longer it goes on.

One of them, which I can't really talk about yet, involves some pretty inexperienced people (and some pretty experienced ones, so it should be an interesting learning experience all around). There's cast members already attached, which led to a discussion of casting methods. This, of course, led to me talking about casting methods on Twitter. Turns out everyone has different approaches, all of them equally valid. I thought it might be interesting to talk about mine and see how it differs from other people.

Worst-case scenario, it gives me a chance to ramble.

It's a multi-step process:

1. What are we looking for?

Obvious, right? Not exactly. You may know, for example, that the script calls for a 25 year old white male, but that doesn't really describe the character. What is he going to have to do? What are some key elements of his personality? If you've ever cast anything, you know a time will come when you're looking at a really talented actor who can't play the age range. Then you've got to decide if the age range can move. It helps if you know that from the beginning.

2. The collection of "talent"

I qualify "talent" for the simple reason that a lot of the people you look at will be awful. I gather people a couple of different ways. I put out a casting call, which is kind of a scatter-shot approach that sometimes works. Also I put out a social media casting call, which works better. Third, I reach out privately to fellow filmmakers, looking for suggestions. You get a lot of people.

3. Headshots

Since I know what I'm looking for, I flip through headshots. I do this pretty quickly. 15 seconds, max. Most of them won't even remotely fit the character you're looking for, which is easy. Beyond that, you're looking for people who could work, who fit in a range. I go through those again and usually prioritize them, focusing almost entirely on the actor's eyes and how they hold themselves in the frame. The interesting ones go in the first pile. The bland ones go in the second pile. Hopefully I won't have to get to the second pile.

I have a couple of actor friends that think this step is just horrible. I see where they're coming from. I'm eliminating a lot of talent. But an actor thinks they can play pretty much everything, and maybe they can, but there's lots and lots of actors out there. It's one of those horrible realities. In theatre you can go outside type more easily. In film it just takes the audience out of the film. You have to ask yourself: is it worth it? Couldn't I just as easily get someone who fits the role?

4. The reel

Generally, I think reels are pretty much a waste. I never, ever cast someone based on what's in their reel, and I'll only watch maybe 10% of them all the way through. My priority is simple: I'm looking for a reason to thin the pile. Most of them I'll shut off after 30 seconds. I want someone who looks magnetic on camera and can carry that throughout a take, someone who moves well. Anything that looks like their dropping character or struggling with an accent or anything that even reeks of mediocre and I'm gone. Remember, this is what they consider to be their absolute best work. So if it's mediocre, why bother?

Things that annoy me in reels:

1. Music
2. A scene where two actors look really similar. Who am I looking at?
3. That time the actor had one line on Law & Order. What does that tell me? There aren't very many shows where I'll care that an actor had one line. Among them: Mad Men, Deadwood, and LOST. And mostly because I think they might have a good story to tell.

After the reels, I'm probably down to, I dunno, 2% of what I started with, maybe fewer. That was the easy part.

5. The resume

Here's where I start to look at what an actor has done. Really, I don't care so much, I'm just skimming for things that look interesting, for projects where I know someone else who worked on it, for films that might be easy to track down, stuff like that. If I can get a copy of the project easily, I'll reach out to people for that, since it might take some time. I try and do it discreetly.

6. Google

Also at this point I'm scouring the interwebs, looking for anything I can find on an actor. To me, this is more important than the resume. I'm not going to be directing this person's past performances. I'm going to be directing a person. Maybe this comes from having directed a lot of non-actors. I don't really care what the actor has done. I'm more interested in what I think they can do.

So here I'm looking for interviews (print and video), a blog, a twitter feed, a facebook page. If they have some writing ability, that's a big plus. Basically I become this person's stalker. I look through their facebook photos of them drunk at parties. Anything I can find, really. It's not really as creepy as it sounds. Basically what I'm looking for is an intelligence level in what someone writes, and I want to know how they look when they haven't been made up and professionally lit. Some people look like completely different people when the light changes. That's kind of important.

But you pick up stuff that becomes helpful. The last person I researched, it was obvious from her facebook photos that she's a dog lover. That's information that, should I end up directing this person, I can use to get a better performance.

7. Past work

When I get ahold of that past work, I'm looking for a lot of the same things I'm looking for in the reel, but beyond that I'm watching to see how an actor builds and sustains an arc. How clean is the performance? Do they command the screen? This is usually where I start bringing in other people. But I almost never bring in film people. I have a group of people who have pretty good reads on actors, just normal audience members who I've had dozens and dozens of conversations with over the years about actors. I trust their instincts and know what sort of things they're seeing. More importantly, they don't know these people, so they aren't rooting for the actor they've worked with. Their only bias is toward the project. You meet an actor and you get attached to them, you start looking for a way to squeeze them into a project. But these people come at it clean. They don't any of these actors, couldn't care less about them as human beings. That's important.

8. References

I almost never contact the references on the resume. Is that poor form? Maybe. I don't really care. This is where I use that list of people who have worked with the actor. I'll usually reach out to past directors of their films. Basically I want to know: 1) How hard do they work? 2) How do they take direction? 3) How are they to work with? 4) Would they cast them again?

I have a zero tolerance policy for divas and assholes, which is basically what I'm trying to weed out. If you aren't willing to lay in the mud, I'm sure I can find someone who is. I'll take a B- actor who works his ass off over an A- actor who doesn't, no question.

Around this time, I start to try and figure out what type of actor they are. Are they comfortable with improv or are they more comfortable rattling off 5 pages of dialogue? That can be a big issue, depending on the project.

9. Contact

Finally, after all that, I make my first contact with the actor, usually by email. As you might imagine, by this point I have a pretty good idea of who I'm talking to and how comfortable I'd be working with them. If we can meet in person, great. If not, the phone works just fine. I like to pick their brain and talk to them about how they like to work, what sort of filming experiences they've had. I'll sometimes ask them about their past performances, about what they liked and didn't like about them. Really, I'm trying to get a sense of how well I'll click with this person. I want to know how well our styles and personalities will mesh. I talk to them about my methods and see what sort of reactions I get. I like to think I'm pretty good at detecting bullshit at this stage. I used to have a job where I conducted job interviews over the phone, so I can usually weed out insincerity.

And with any luck, during that phone call, I may just cast them in the film.

So that, roughly, is my method. Are other filmmakers similar? Completely different?

12 October 2010

You Can't Eat Critical Acclaim, Part 1

I'm sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?

--Allen Ginsberg, "America"

This is probably a long time coming, but my process of moving and finding a new base of operations requires that I, you know, find a way to pay the rent.

Of course, you can always live in your car, but it's tricky getting the Post Office to forward your mail there.

There's all sorts of methods creative types use to pay the bills, but they've all got their downsides. Either the pay is terrible or the hours are terrible or there's no flexibility. Or you can temp. A lot of filmmakers shoot wedding videos or corporate HR videos or other such freelance projects. The problem quickly becomes that you spend so much time trying to get clients that you quickly become a guy who shoots wedding videos and cease to be a filmmaker. It's hard enough trying to keep one of those businesses going if that's all you want to do.

Got any good solutions? Let's hear them.

As usual, I'm sure there's a better way. (It's kind of something I'm good at, fixing bad processes)

For a filmmaker looking for a day job (and I mean a real, career-oriented filmmaker with an audience and a filmography, not someone fresh out of film school who's getting started), there's a couple of priorities in a day job:

1. A flexible schedule

It's commonly misunderstood. We don't lean toward freelancing because of our inability to get up early (well, that might be part of it) or because we don't have any shirts that aren't t-shirts (also part of it). It's because of the schedule.

The single biggest stumbling block in so many film projects is trying to coordinate schedules. So if you can get a schedule that's flexible enough that you can, say, film on a random Tuesday and Wednesday from 6am-8pm without having to use your personal days or anything, that's gold.

That doesn't mean you call your boss on Monday at 10pm and tell him you won't be in tomorrow. It means that as soon as you have a project on the horizon, you let your boss know. And then you keep him updated. There's no reason a forward-thinking employer and a forward-thinking employee can't figure out a way to make this work[1].

I can't even count the number of jobs I've lost/left because I've said to my boss, "In a month, I'm going to need a couple days off to do this project." The boss says, "Well, we can't let you do that."

It's not really optional, you know? Filmmaking is my career. The day job is my day job. Guess which is going to win?

This isn't really complicated. We need to be able to take time off without it affecting our rent payments. We need to be able to work from home, at least part of the time. In part 2, I'll explain why we're worth it.

2. Money

We like money just as much as you do. We have bills to pay, same as you. In a day job, we expect to be fairly compensated. I've worked several jobs where I've been paid less than other employees at my level, simply because they figured they could get away with it, seeing as I'm a starving artist. Bad karma for them.

3. Financial stability

It'd be really nice to come back from, say, shooting a feature in the woods of Northern Maine and have a day job waiting for me. Is that so hard to understand?

There's a truism in HR: "Replacing someone who leaves generally costs four times that person’s salary when recruitment and training cost are factored in." Four times!

Wouldn't it just be easier to get a good employee and let them go shoot a feature for a month or two? It'd be cheaper, that's for sure. I don't understand why more businesses aren't more cognizant of this. Isn't it Efficiency 101?

Let's do the math. You're paying a creative person $36,000 a year, which comes to $3k a month. Employee needs two months off to go to wherever and make a film. Even if you paid them for that time, the cost to you is $6k. They come back and not only do you still have that employee, but they're incredibly happy because they have such an amazing boss. Happier employees are more productive, etc, etc.

Or you could let them go. Four times $36k is $144,000. Maybe you get a better employee. Maybe you get a worse employee. Either way, you have an Expected Value of -$138,000. I can't think of too many reasons to make a decision with that negative of an expectation.

You could let them take two months a year to make a film every year for 24 years in a row before that became a losing proposition for you.

4. A sense of purpose

Here's the big secret: we don't get a sense of purpose from our day jobs. A lot of employees do, and that's great. We get our sense of purpose from our films. That's our career. That's what we want to be doing. So our "day job sense of purpose" is directly tied to how we feel it impacts our career. If it seems like we're wasting our time and it's getting in the way of projects, we aren't happy. But, if it feels like we're doing something that allows us to further our career by providing a financial safety net, we're much, much happier.

None of the other stuff that a company normally does to make employees happy matters all that much. When you have that pizza party that everyone in the office looks forward to, guess where you can find us? That's right, in the corner, working on a script.

We don't care about Employee Appreciation Day. We don't want a Dundie. We want to feel like we aren't wasting our time. I can't speak for other filmmakers, but what keeps me up nights is the fear of turning 50 and not having made any of the films I want to make.

Does that make me a bad potential employee? No. Actually, it makes me a really good one, given the right opportunity. And in part 2, I'll explain why.


[1] Obviously there are reasons, but they're pretty specific to situations. If you want to work at, say, Apple, you probably aren't going to be able to film during iPhone crunch time. But you know that ahead of time. You can work around it.

11 October 2010

UP COUNTRY: Directing over the phone

An extension of the last video, but with a couple of notes.

1. That's Kerey holding the camera.

2. Why would we send the director so far out of the way to get the lens when he's obviously needed on the set? Well, because he's the only one who knew the area well enough and could then get to set.

3. Yes, I need to lose like 10 pounds.

4. We managed to get 1 scene filmed. We had 4 scheduled.

06 October 2010


In the first 2 days of production, UPS royally screwed up 3 deliveries, costing us roughly 6 hours of production time total.

Here, myself and assistant camera Kerey are in Friendship, Maine, trying to intercept the UPS delivery guy on his route, so that we can salvage at least part of the day. It took about an hour and a half of haggling to get them to help us this little tiny bit.

Guess who's using FedEx on his next production?

04 October 2010

The Fish to Pond Ratio, Part 2

Last week I renewed the registration on my car, which was kind of tricky, as it contained the following conversation:

DMV: So the Pittsburgh address, that's your current address?
Me: Sort of.
DMV: Are you living there?
Me: No.
DMV: Well, where are you living?
Me: Nowhere, really.

Turns out I'm a resident of Pittsburgh, still. That's where I'm registered to vote[1] and that's where my driver's license says I live, which is I guess what matters. I don't know.

It's going to be tricky when someone like me figures out how to avoid getting mail altogether. How will I register my car then?

I guess one of two will happen over the next year: I'll either pick a new place to live and be there for a year or so, or I won't, instead floating around the country with what will fit in my car and the rest of my things in storage scattered around the country. Both are kind of exhausting to think about.

One thing that I think I learned by shooting Up Country is that while it's certainly easier to make a film where you live, it isn't impossible. Flights go anywhere you can imagine. You can film wherever you can imagine. And, hell, it's almost easier to get people involved in a project that's not where they live. There's a certain sense of adventure to it that appeals to a lot of people.

Right now I'm still in Maine, starting to edit Up Country and kicking the tires on a few projects. Most of them will film in places I wouldn't necessarily want to live in.

So what does that mean? I guess it means I float for a little professionally, which is fine by me. I like traveling a great deal. Airports are some of my favorite places. I'm intrigued by the idea of seeing just how many films in a row I can make without repeating a city. But I think that's really just a by-product of not knowing where I should move next. I could go back to Pittsburgh. It's the safe play, but I don't know that I want to make a film in Pittsburgh. It's a decent film community, but not great, and the lack of support for the Indies for Indies screening series (and the Hollywood Theater in general) was pretty telling.

Or I could go to one of the indie film hot spots: NYC, Austin, San Francisco. There'd be a lot more resources (just ask Jarrod Whaley how much easier it was to put a film together in SF, as opposed to Chattanooga), a much greater creative "vibe", but I become a small fish in a big pond, and maybe not even in a pond I want to film in. What's the point in living in SF if I decide to shoot my next film in Mexico anyway? In that case, isn't SF the same as Pittsburgh, which is the same as Maine?

Then aren't you just living in the airport terminals between where you work and where you pay rent?

I'm beginning to think that, more and more, the pond is the internet. We're all in the same pond, whether we want to be or not. Where we chose to live then becomes a question of where can we best get our films made? Where are we happiest, personally and professionally? Where can we find a day job that meshes best with this lifestyle (easier said than done)?

Is it possible to live in, say, Pittsburgh or Maine and go to NYC & LA several times a year? Sure. Does it make more sense to just live in NYC? Maybe. Or maybe it doesn't. NYC is expensive.

Honestly, I have no idea. Which isn't good, because it kind of dictates what the next chapter of my life will look like.


[1] Although apparently they never took me off the voting roles in Maine, so I could have been voting in Maine and PA all along. Maybe TN too. Who knows?

03 October 2010

Person of Interest

Right off the bat, I'll admit that I haven't yet seen Gregory Bayne's Person of Interest, but not for lack of opportunity or interest. Mostly just laziness.

But, I'm as much of a fan as one could be of a film they've not seen. I follow the progress as closely as I can, I gave money to the Kickstarter campaign, I have the DVD, I wear the POI shirt proudly around town. Hell, I even tried to sneak a POI plug into Up Country, but it didn't work out (mostly because I left that shirt behind when we drove to the location).

So...here's another opportunity to plug the film.

Greg, who you really should be following on Twitter, has made the film available for free on the new site Vodo.net. What's Vodo? I'm not really sure, but I think it's some sort of file sharing site that encourages people to sponsor the artists. Because, really, that 'stache isn't going to maintain itself. That sort of thing costs money.

Go to Vodo. Download POI. Check it out. Etc. You won't regret it. Well...you might, but it won't cost you anything.