Filmmaking

The Buskers + Lou or: On Just Making The Damn Thing by Reese Hayes

We all make movies for different reasons. For some, film may be the only way to express how they feel about a certain idea. Others may just be so in love with the medium that they can’t help but to try it out for themselves. All filmmakers, however, make films because they have to. There’s something in each of us that won’t allow us to rest until we’ve told our story. But making a movie is difficult and expensive and these barriers are often what stops aspiring artists from creating. Fear holds them back. The fear of failure, of rejection, embarrassment, disappointment… These are all valid reasons not to make a film. Luckily, you only need one reason to make a film. In the case of The Buskers + Lou, Alex Cassun’s one reason was “Why not?”

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The year is 2011. The place is Portland Oregon. Alex has just raised $3,500 on Kickstarter for his film. The actors are cast, the crew has been hired, the script is nonexistent. These are perfect conditions for an independent film – but wait… No Script?!

“We had a loose script,” Alex told me as we sat in the back corner of Biddle’s Escape (The year is 2019 now). “…loosely inspired by my own life.” Alex wrote the over-arching story of a man returning to his hometown looking for a change, but left it up to the creativity of his cast and crew to fill in the missing pieces. He wanted the film to be a collaborative effort where he put most of his focus on the characters, performances, and maintaining a consistent story, leaving the visuals up to the cinematographers (and the 6 camera operators!) and the dialogue up to the actors. This might not be the easiest way to make a movie, but it’s effective in making everyone involved feel like they’re making serious contributions.

“[I had to] make compromises for the people who wanted to be there.” That meant putting the ego aside and letting the artists do their thing.  And in a city like Portland, I’m not sure making this film would have been possible any other way.

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The people of Portland are skeptical of outsiders. Especially the film-types that fly up from LAX. Which was unfortunate for Alex, because he moved to Portland directly from LA with almost no connections to the film community of the Pacific North West. He wanted to get the city involved in his project and now views it as a time capsule for his experiences there. Portland itself plays an important role in the film, but nothing about it feels exaggerated or forced. It’s easy to believe the buskers live there, because they actually do. They’re the last of a dying breed, yet they seem to thrive in the simple and happy lifestyle 2011’s Portland could provide them.

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When we first meet Lou, we learn he’s returned to Portland after some time away at “Suit Camp” and has decided to turn his life around. He wants a job and to make some money so he can move out of his friend’s van and grow up a little bit. The busking life style of the people he used to know is beneath him now and their attempts to bring Lou back into their carefree lifestyle are met with contempt and stifled anger. Lou wants society to accept him, but won’t accept the acceptance of his friends.  He hates his new job counting inventory at the mall for a slimy boss while everyone he knows has found happiness in playing music on the street, selling old clothes out of a bus, and living together in a house they’ve appropriately named “Free Pile”. The Buskers + Lou is a story about a person trying to figure out who they are and what they want out of life. And upon second viewing, the movie feels like Alex figuring out who he is and what he wants as a filmmaker.

“This was the best film school I could have had,” Alex told me. He learned from his mistakes: “We spent way too much money on coffee and food.” He learned the importance of thinking about the theme of your story and the potential audience it may reach from Day One. Having this in mind helps influence every decision you make on set and in the cutting room. He learned to keep his expectations in check, to not make promises he can’t keep, and the value of limiting locations. But most importantly, he learned everything it takes to get a film distributed, which brings us to today!

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The Buskers + Lou is a true indie feature. From its production – 23 shooting days over the course of 2 ½ years (with pick-ups) – to its distribution – which only took an additional 4 years after the 2015 premiere – this film was made with enthusiasm, patience, and a ton of hard work, proving that all it takes to make a film is the desire to do so. Alex lived in the van used in the film, he stole locations, doubled extras, shot footage with a cell phone… whatever it took to finish it. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the production of The Buskers + Lou, but first you gotta watch it!

Filmmaking in the Internet Era by Reese Hayes

Written by Justin Andrus, The Dashing Intern

September 4, 1998.
February 19, 1999.
February 14, 2005.

These are the dates of Google’s founding, my birth, and YouTube’s founding, respectively. By the time I was born, most information (or at least a lot of it, I don’t remember) was just a computer away. By the time I finished first grade, the first YouTube video to do so had hit a million views. Point is, the internet’s always been available to me. While editing the first Dashing Agent vlog last week, I realized that without the internet, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into filmmaking at all. After mulling it over some more, I came up with four of what I consider the most important-to-understand impacts the internet has on filmmakers. Let’s start with the positives:

Easier Learning

The internet lets us share knowledge across the globe, so of course it’s made filmmaking easier to pick up; it’s done the same for every skill. But aside from maybe foreign languages, I can’t think of any skill the internet has made as dramatic a difference in learnability for than filmmaking. The technical instruments combined with the art form’s visual nature can make it extremely difficult to learn by word alone. Many film textbooks try to make up for this by filling half the pages with pictures, but in my experience, nothing beats YouTube tutorials such as this helpful (if a little long) video on three-point lighting. Of course, simple practice can sometimes be a better way of learning cinematography skills, but the internet is especially useful when it comes to post-production. Every editing software invariably has a complex and intimidating layout, so if you’re at all interested in this side of filmmaking, just know that Google is your friend. Seriously, remember that it’s just a friend, or you might develop romantic feelings.

More Inspiration

The internet’s wealth of knowledge made filmmaking easier to learn, but it’s not what got me into the hobby. That was the other aspect of the web—the endless entertainment. My interest originated with Reese’s early videos (which I watched because my older brother appeared in) and grew steadily until l discovered YouTuber Gus Johnson, a comedian who makes low-production-value, yet hilarious sketches. This style seemed extremely approachable, so I finally decided to try it out. I’m sure most filmmakers my age got into this for similar reasons, but it’s easy to forget that the internet can still inspire us as we make our own projects. Whether it be writer’s block or trouble finding the right visual style for a scene, there’s always a short film on YouTube or Vimeo that can lead you in the right direction.

But the infinite entertainment does have a downside, so let’s look at the first of the internet’s negative impacts on filmmakers:

Boredom Shortage

At the end of the first lecture in my intro to film history class at Penn State, the professor showed us a short film about the dangers of constant cell phone use. At the time I thought it was just old man syndrome, but now I realize there may have been some merit in showing it to a bunch of film students. Of course, I don’t think it’s cellphones that are the problem, but it is something they can access—the internet. Making our own amusement via film or any other art form is much more work than enjoying that which is already so easily accessible, so getting motivated can be tough.

If you do find yourself on an unproductive streak, don’t blame it on your ability. As soon as you start thinking you’re not creative or a good artist, two things will likely happen: It will gradually become true, and you’ll place impossible standards on yourself in an attempt to prove that it’s not true. So rather than blaming it on your ability, blame it on how funny The Office is or how great the soundtrack was in the new season of Stranger Things. Then say today’s the day and get to work, even if it means sitting down with nothing but a notebook and a pencil until the idea for your next project hits, even if it means purposefully getting bored.

Popularity Contest

When you do make a film, the internet provides a great place to put it where it will be easily accessible. So accessible, in fact, that you might think a large number of people will access it. I mean, why not? Maybe you’ve already got a few loyal subscribers in your close friends; if they could just tell their friends and those friends could tell other friends, suddenly BAM! You’ve gone viral! Right?

Well, probably not.

Sure, it can happen, and that possibility is a beautiful thing, but I don’t need to look up the ratio of YouTubers with more than a thousand subscribers to those with fewer to know that it’s incredibly lopsided. In addition to getting your hopes up, this popularity contest format can make you give up your individual creative vision, convincing you to cater to mainstream taste before your own. While one of the best parts of being an artist is definitely entertaining others, you should still make films that you like. If you really enjoy it, someone else will too.

On Giving it a Shot (from the Dashing Intern) by Reese Hayes

I still remember the first idea I had for a YouTube video.

Many summers ago, some relatives came to my family’s house with souvenirs from some trip they had just returned from. The gifts were pretty ordinary: beach towels, sweatshirts, baseball hats, a green anole. Oh right, that last one was a little shocking. For the unaware, a green anole is a small type of lizard that, as it turns out, makes for a generally boring pet. But even though Kiwi spent ninety percent of his life just lying there, basking in the sun or relaxing in his little pool of water, he would scurry faster than the human eye could see when we placed his food, a cricket from the backyard, inside his terrarium. Little me, funny guy that I was, realized the humor in this starkly contrasting behavior and decided it could make for a hilarious Planet Earth-style video with the right narration. I tested the idea on a live studio audience when my little cousin came over one day, and it proved to be a hit. So, I opened up the camera app on my iPod Touch, practiced a couple words in my British accent, dropped a new cricket in Kiwi’s cage, and hit record. Afterwards, I couldn’t help but notice the differences between my video and others I had seen. By comparison, my camerawork was awful, the audio was terribly distorted, and the concept really wasn’t very funny. I knew nobody would want to watch it, so nobody would get the chance. I deleted it.

Now maybe some of you are wondering why you’ve never heard this story from Reese before. Truth is, I’m not Reese, I’m the new Dashing Agent intern (AKA the Dashing Intern), Justin, and about six months ago I finally decided that making dumb or low-quality videos was better than making none at all. Since becoming a filmmaker, I’ve realized that the perks of this hobby go way beyond the simple satisfaction of seeing your ideas come to life, and if anyone reading this is struggling with the same fear of high standards that took me years to overcome (or knows someone who is), I hope these benefits convince you to take the leap.

A New Level of Communication

Consider this hypothetical: You have two children, Bob and Sally. Bob asks you if he can have a certain toy, but you know the toy is very dangerous and could even result in his death, so you deny him of it. But Sally, feeling bad for her brother, secretly gives him the toy. Not long after, it causes his death. Do you punish Sally? Do you ever forgive her?

Maybe you spent some time debating, but you likely came to an answer fairly quickly. Or maybe you didn’t even take the question seriously. After all, what kind of toy could kill a kid? Does Bob have a knife obsession? The hypothetical situation may seem silly, but when you watched it occur in the opening scene of A Quiet Place, I’m guessing you didn’t laugh.

Sure, I left out some details that make it more believable, but the point remains: When ideas are presented to you through video, you’re bound to examine them more thoroughly and be more deeply impacted by them than if they were expressed in words alone. You probably already understood this from a viewer’s perspective, but if you’ve never watched someone else watch your own film, you haven’t experienced the full awesomeness of filmmaking as a means of communication. Every the most basic of plots can provoke a furrowed eyebrow or a sharp exhale out of the nose, and when more complex ideas are thrown in the mix, the audience inevitably spends some time reflecting. So whether there’s some burning truth you want to spread or you just want to see someone smile, try making a film.

Better Movies

Thus far in my filmmaking journey, I’ve made a few comedy sketch videos, a terribly boring music video for some friends in an amateur rap group, a somewhat-interesting, but ultimately incoherent short documentary, and I’ve helped with the shooting of Cobblestoned 4. Obviously none of the former projects could be described as anything other than amateur, but I thought the set of Cobblestoned seemed professional enough to be a legit movie set until Reese and Erick informed me that I was mistaken. But despite my lack of professional filmmaking experience, I’ve seen enough to understand many of the subtleties that go into filmmaking, and it’s made movies far more entertaining.

To me, the most entertaining of these subtleties is also perhaps the most obvious—for every angle of every scene in a movie, the camera itself had to have been placed in position to capture the scene from that angle. Obvious as it is, unless you’ve dealt with the struggle of camera positioning for your own films, you probably don’t think about it a whole lot. Some especially difficult shots—and therefore more appreciable—include those in tight spaces, such as cars or small bathrooms (*cough* Cobblestoned 4), long takes during which the camera moves, such as this jarring scene from Children of Men, and my personal favorite, long shots, in which the camera is lugged a great distance from the subject to reveal their surroundings.

Other interesting aspects of filmmaking to ponder while watching movies include the order the scenes were likely shot in for convenience’s sake, the methods used to light certain scenes, how a densely populated area was cleared of people, or alternatively, how a large number of background actors were treated, a subject so significant that Reese dedicated a previous blog post to it. There are countless other things you’ll begin to notice in movies as a filmmaker, but first you’ll have to, well, make a film!

Hanging with Friends

This one’s self-explanatory. Filmmaking can be challenging, tedious, and frustrating, but it can also be exciting, funny, and just generally enjoyable. In other words, it’s the perfect way to bond with friends, and don’t worry if your friends get tired of it—there’s a whole community of passionate filmmakers waiting to work with you.

Why are you still here? Go grab a camera and film something!

Justin Andrus - The Dashing Intern

Justin Andrus - The Dashing Intern

On Getting Rejected (again and again and again) by Reese Hayes

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Today, I received my official letter of rejection to the Stareable Web Series Festival via film freeway. Actually, I found out I wasn’t accepted to the fest yesterday when I checked their blog and saw the Official Selections List did not include the pilot of Cobblestoned. Honestly, I’m not very surprised by this decision as I’ve only been accepted to one short film festival over the span of my 13 years as a filmmaker, but I had my hopes up for this one and find myself disappointed nonetheless. After all, Cobblestoned is all of my friend’s favorite web series! That has to count for something, right?

Rejection is something everyone faces time and time again. It can really hurt to not be given an opportunity you believe you deserve. And as a filmmaker or artist, it can feel like the hard work you put into you art isn’t appreciated or that you, as an artist, don’t have what it takes. And I don’t know, maybe that’s true for me, but so far rejection hasn’t stopped me from continuing down the path of an independent filmmaker. But it’s definitely caused some serious setbacks.

Why can’t I make something that people want to see on a big screen? How will I ever break into the industry if no one sees my work? Am I even a real filmmaker if my small audience only watches half my film on YouTube?

I obviously don’t have answers to any of these questions, yet I ask them each time I get another rejection letter. At some point I might give up on submitting to festivals all together. It’s quite expensive and when you don’t get accepted it literally feels like throwing your money away. And that’s money I could have used on my next project!

It seems like some people get pumped up over rejections. Like it lights a fire under them and makes them work harder to get accepted next time. I wish I had this kind of personality, but I tend to creep into the darkness and wait for my inspiration to return. It’s not that I crave validation or constant attention, but being told you’re not good enough over and over again kinda sucks. It’s hard to keep going, but from my experience the only way to move past it is to make something new. So, this time I’m trying not to dwell on it. Yeah, it would have been fun to fly to New York, meet a bunch of people, and see how a live audience reacts to my film, but now I have a free weekend to make the next one!

I guess it stings because each time I make something new, I feel like it’s the best thing I’ve done yet. And usually it actually is. So, I get excited. I feel like I’m making progress in this ridiculous career path. This time, I’ll get an acceptance letter! But each time, I’m put in my place again. Maybe I need to stop valuing myself from what some festival curators see in me. Maybe I need to focus on making something my friends and family will enjoy. Maybe I should start my own film festival and accept my work every time!

Okay, I don’t know where I’m going with this post anymore. Rejection sucks, but it doesn’t mean you suck. I suppose it can take a long time to make something worth showing in a festival. Don’t let it get you down like it gets me down. From my experience, it’s not very healthy. Continue making things until you’ve made something no one can ignore. And maybe just save your money on short film fests. I don’t think they’re all that important anyway. Make a feature and get it into Sundance and then when it gets nominated for an Oscar and you ultimately win, get up to the podium with your little golden man, thank you mom and your producer, and put some shame on the people who told you no. And then laugh at them, because now you have a dumb little gold man that will forever sit on your shelf judging all those who enter your home.

On Working with Extras by Reese Hayes

Background Actors (the preferred nomenclature) are a mysterious bunch of artists that are critical to creating a realistic environment in your movie.  Whenever you watch a scene that takes place at a restaurant or a bar or at a wild party, all those folks in the back having fun are background actors.  They create the atmosphere of the location and give life to the scene.  Without them, movies would feel very lonely indeed.  However, many low budget and independent filmmakers struggle to find background actors that are willing to perform their art for free, for “credit”, or for access to a really weak crafty table.  Believe it or not, most people do not enjoy standing around miming actions for 8 to 12 hours with little to no compensation.

On our web series, Half Bath we had a difficult time filling out the bar in Chapter 3, the diner in Chapter 4, AND the party scene in Chapter 5.  The bar wasn’t a huge issue since it was meant to be an undesirable location for the main characters so having some awkward silence wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.  We also got around this problem at the diner by sitting the characters closer to the window and only seeing the rest of the establishment for brief moments in close-ups.  The party in Chapter 5 on the other hand was a little embarrassing.  Why don’t they have enough friends to warm their new house?  Who is Natalie talking to when she gives her speech?  We didn’t have good answers to these questions so I changed the time of the episode to take place much later in the night and hoped people would assume the party was winding down when the episode began…  The background actors who did show up were all wonderful people who like nothing more than being on set and surrounding themselves in the filmmaking process. 

For our most recent episode of Cobblestoned, I decided to do things a little differently.  I wrote the scenes so that our principal actors (me and Mikey) are never seen in the same shot as the extras.  There are multiple instances where one or both of us are talking to a group of people or showing them an illusion and it was important to me that I could shoot the reactions of the crowd before shooting our performances.  This allowed me to move very quickly and get all of the shots we needed so that the extras could leave as quickly as possible.  Most of these people were fans of the show or our friends that owed us a favor and all of them seemed excited to be there.  We didn’t make them wait around, we gave everyone a line of dialogue if they wanted one, and we got them out the door in less than 3 hours.  That’s a pretty quick day for any background actor.  And it worked really well!  It took more planning and organizing than usual, but what resulted was the best scene with extras we’ve ever shot at Dashing Agent.  Everyone had fun, did amazing work, and made new friends!

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When trying to find people to be extras in your movie, you need to realize that they are as essential as any other role.  Maybe they don’t have lines or close-ups or drive the story forward, but they’re there to make the world feel real.  Treat them like they’re a part of the production family and that you couldn’t do it without them.  All they want is to be a part of something and have fun while they do it.  Allow them to have fun and make them know just how important they really are.  But by all circumstances DO NOT make them waste their whole day on your stupid movie set.  DO NOT neglect to make them comfortable while they’re there.  DO NOT tell them you’ll feed them only to kick them out way ahead of schedule and keep the hotdogs for yourself (I’m really sorry about lying to you Jake, Joe, Chauncey, Donald, Ryan, Lorraine, Shannon, Chloe, Philip, Jack, Carrie, and Justin… I swear it was not my intention).

When it comes time to shoot the crowd scenes, give the background actors specific directions.  They’re actors too and need to know what they’re supposed to be doing and why they’re doing it.  Give them the opportunity to come up with characters for themselves.  It might seem silly, but if they have the proper motivation they likely won’t stick out as a clumsy extra who doesn’t look like they belong there. 

Try your best to keep them on the move.  If you give someone a specific task and make them do it over and over for the entirety of your shoot, they’re gonna get cranky and bored.  Move them around even if you might not see them on the screen (in fact, it’s probably better if you can’t).  Most audiences won’t notice if an extra is in 2 shots when they shouldn’t be, but you’re an independent filmmaker so who cares what the audience thinks?

And for the love of god, pay attention to them!  Answer questions if they have them, give them breaks if they need them, and tell them to fix whatever they might be doing wrong.  A lot of the time, directors and DPs will be too focused on the talent to realize the background talent looks uncomfortable and unrealistic.  Work with them.  They’re as much a part of the scene as your leads, so make sure they’re doing the right thing.  Background actors love being told to do something differently.  It means they’re working and are useful.  And that they might get IMDb credit for this one! Finally!!

That’s all the advice I have on working with extras, but if you’re reading this you’re probably wondering “How do I even find extras for my movie?”  That’s a whole different topic that I don’t even want to try to get into.  My biggest piece of advice is to not write scenes that need extras.  It’s such a pain…