Wednesday, June 3, 2009

In Review: LDSFF '09 Part 8: The Short Films

The short film competition is probably one of the best parts of the festival. I love the format, first of all, and to see ten or eleven of the films right in a row is great. This year, the competition was broken into two segments with about twenty films total. I won't discuss them all, but you can read synopses and get credit information here.

Let me briefly run down my impressions of the most memorable of these films (for me), in no particular order.

The Teller's Tale by Jared Parker and Jared Cook

This is a charming story that is great for anyone with children. It captures the magic that can exist when a father is involved in his childrens' lives and imaginations. Because I love to read to my daughters, this touched me.

The Skeleton Dance by the East Hollywood High stop-motion animation class.

While I found the animation on this one a little bit disturbing, it represented an encouraging and inventive effort by some talented young students.

Face to Face by Spanky Ward

This plain bothered me, and not in an introspective, constructive way. I don't know Mr. Ward (although I see his Craigslist ads all the time), but this seemed like a masochistic attempt to get us all to connect with our inner psychotic murderer. Coming to terms with your dark side is fine, but I thought this was a bit over the top.

In the film, a man is confronted in his home by an evil stranger who looks just like him. Predictably, over the course of their conversation it becomes clear that they're two sides of the same personality. The good self ends up embracing the murderous actions of the bad self, and, as far as I could tell at one viewing, embracing his evil nature as well.

True, we all do some things that we're ashamed of. We might even hide them from our consciousness as the man in this film did. But I just think Face to Face takes too bleak a view of human nature. We're not all murderers at heart, and when we come to realize our mistakes, most of us still desire to overcome our weakness. The absence of atonement here would be interesting if it were deliberate, but it seems unlikely that this was the case. Instead, this film simply gives up on human goodness and tells us all to go ahead and go to hell, since there’s no other place, really, although I doubt that even that was deliberate. My biggest problem with this film is not that it has dark and difficult themes or that the ending is unhappy; it's that the film seems utterly devoid of any constructive virtue. It denigrates both the main character and the audience.

Fifty Cents by Ali Barr and Sally Meyer

I thought this was an enchanting tale of the young learning from the old, and vice versa. Sally Meyer's gifts for short form writing come through here.

These Words are Mine by Robert Higginson, Brian Higginson, and Carol Lynch Williams

I'll take an extra minute on this because it applies to us as artists. This is a wonderful story of how an "impossibly horrible" writer uses her words to send the messages she's too shy to speak outright. The writer's boyfriend is reluctant to act as critic for her latest story because he doesn't want to endure its badness, but also doesn't want to hurt her feelings. He comes to understand, however, that although the words may be ill-chosen, the message is heartfelt, and it's for him.

In the Church, we have a high tolerance for people who are well intentioned but awkward in their execution. We almost expect people to be blunderers because, after all, the Lord looks on the heart and we certainly don't claim to be qualified for our callings do we? Our wills to be humble turn us all into this cute writer who does her best but invariably fails. What we hope is that those we're ministering to will understand our intent and not get caught because we're not mighty in writing. In LDS film, we similarly see a lot of attempts by people who mean well, but lack the polish of seasoned professionals. My question is, is that okay, expected, or even desirable?

The Edge of the World by E.R. Nelson

This is the second animated entry, and teaches a rather blunt lesson about recognizing what you have and being content with it.

A Piece of Infinity by Janine and Jamie Sides

This was probably the closest I came to shedding tears during this competition. It is an absolutely heart-wrenching look at relationships lost and the hope for the future.

Unhinged by Nick Stentzel and Diane Mayne

Like These Words are Mine, this film takes a look at art and relationships. This time though, the artist's obsession keeps his relationship from becoming meaningful, but he is awkward in art because he has no time for love. He almost loses his girl and his art, but he finally learns to let her in and finds the inspiration he's been looking for.

Best Wishes, Love Adele by Whitney Donald

A touching look at misunderstandings and forlorn hopes of romance, this film stands out because it takes a compassionate look at certain issues related to aging. I love the charitable ending, in which the doubters learn that the old man is big-hearted, rather than manipulative.

Mind the Gap by Kristal Williams-Rowley and Marcy Holland

This was the winner of the competition, and deservedly so. It centers on Sara, the daughter of a railroad engineer whose train is the weapon in a classmate's suicide. Sara struggles to deal with her feelings of bitterness towards the dead girl and her sense of injustice at the victimization (not for the first time) of her father, who copes with his own feelings by keeping a collection of small items found on the bodies of the people he has hit. Not only does this film reveal some startling statistics about the railroad industry, it openly confronts some difficult issues that are not often addressed simply because they are not obvious. The storytelling is superb. I was left feeling unsure whether this was a purely fictional film or a docu-drama. The film is beautiful, difficult, and in the end, uplifting.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

In Review: LDSFF '09 Part 7: Rick Stevenson and Life-affirming Cinema

One of the highlights of the festival for me was seeing Rick Stevenson's Expiration Date followed later by his presentation. Stevenson was notable for being the only non-LDS filmmaker speaking this year. In fact, he began briefly discussing how he knew Christian Vuissa and by wondering aloud why he was asked to speak at an event where he so clearly didn't fit the niche. He is not wholly unconnected with the Church, however; his wife and family are members.

Perhaps because he has the perspective of an informed outsider (both in filmmaking and Mormonism) the audience's expectations were high. While Stevenson didn't speak much about the LDS film movement itself, his comments were interesting and, I think, important in that they demonstrate a kind of solidarity that can be had between LDS and non-LDS filmmakers.

Expiration Date

This dark, funny, romantic, and charming film is about Charlie Silvercloud, a 24-year-old Native American young man who believes he is under a curse. Charlie's father and grandfather, you see, were killed by milk trucks on their 25th birthdays. Only a few days away from his own expiration date, Charlie is settling his affairs and making arrangements for his funeral - doing such things as looking for a comfortable coffin, selecting burial a burial plot, etc. He is completely resigned to his fate, having grown up his whole life being taught by his mother to expect it. While both of them would like to avoid it (they have every milk delivery route in the city mapped out with red zones indicating unsafe times and places), both view the event as inevitable.

In the course of his preparations, Charlie meets a young woman named Bessie Smith, who is also coffin shopping, though she says it's for her mother, who is dying of cancer. Bessie also happens to be a daughter of the family that owns the city's milk production plant. The movie shows the development of Charlie and Bessie's relationship and how, together, they face issues of life, death, tradition, fear, and love.

I couldn't possibly say what the best thing about this movie is. I was personally struck by the message portrayed in the film's bookends, which frame the story of Charlie's curse as a morality tale being told by an elderly Native American man to a younger tribe member who is trying to get away from the reservation and therefore his heritage. Apparently, the Silverclouds' history of being killed by "pasty white" milk trucks began when the first of them left the tribe to live in the city. The old man telling the story is a humorous but wise character, and racial prejudice is not the point of his comments. Instead, they point out that by turning our backs on our cultural heritage, we reject not only our ancestors but our identities - our very lives. Having served a mission among members of an Indian tribe that has all but disappeared, I found these scenes accurate (per my experience) and deeply moving.

In his presentation, Stevenson spoke about films being culturally true, saying that the purpose of our storytelling tradition is to pass on our values and traditions. Hollywood, while faithful at first, has done this in ever poorer fashion, he claimed, and asked those there to consider their "celluloid footprint," which is not so much what they are taking from the world through film as what they are leaving it. Are we creating "fast food cinema," or producing something more wholesome, sustainable, and true?

Stevenson shared an anecdote that describes another of the film's strengths. After screening Expiration Date at a previous festival (this was the film's 84th - no, that's not a typo) he was approached by a woman whose 12-year-old child was suffering from a terminal illness. With tears in her eyes, she explained that she had been coffin shopping for her son only earlier that day, and thanked Stevenson for his film because it gave her hope. In her words, "it affirms life."

"That moment gave me all the reason to be the filmmaker I am," said Stevenson. He recalled feeling unworthy to be in that woman's presence, but grateful that his film could bless her in such a way. The real reason for making films, he said, is embodied by that experience and countless others like it. The payoff is not monetary.

Other Topics

A few other themes Stevenson discussed were community among filmmakers, the availability of independent film, and how LDS cinema can succeed. Regarding the first, he said that those who want to make good films should support each other. "Send a filmmaker $20 if you've seen his film." Gestures like that make all the difference in keeping people going, and develop a sense of common cause that is strengthening to everyone.

On the second topic, Stevenson gave some eye-opening statistics. He said that about 25,000 films are made around the world each year. About 500 of those are Hollywood productions. Only about 600 films per year get wide distribution, including all 500 made by Hollywood. So good independent films are getting made, but they are not getting to us. In order to help rectify this, Stevenson and some associates have started a group called Official Best of Fest, which offers collections for sale of fourteen to twenty award winning independent films, both short and feature length. Current collections include Chick Flicks, Films that Will Make You Laugh, Films that Inspire, Films about Love, Short Films for Children, and three smaller Date Night collections that come with chocolates.

Finally, Stevenson encouraged LDS filmmakers to focus on their storytelling abilities, seek a narrowly defined audience, and find a neutral storyteller for their films. He gave the example of a child, saying that since a child's primary question is "am I safe?" children make good universal narrators. Everyone can relate to the perspective. He views the current LDS market not as sparse or disinterested, but hungry - very hungry. Finally, he encouraged LDS (and all) independent filmmakers to embrace piracy. Anonymity, he said, not copyright infringement, is our enemy.

Monday, June 1, 2009

In Review: LDSFF '09 Part 6: Most of the Rest of The Presenters

That's a subtitle that's packed to the edges with vague meaning, I know, but I'm trying to prevent this from going on too much longer.

While there is one presentation that I'd like to focus on individually, I think I'm going to try to cover the others all at once. This is for two reasons. First, I don't want this series to take all the way until next year's festival to finish, and I still have some actual films to review. Second, several of the remaining presentations can be summarized with brevity, even by me.

Lets get started.

Seth Packard and Ben Lakey

For those of you who don't know, Seth Packard is the writer/director/star of Hottieboombalottie, a film about a teenager with (from what I've seen) self-image issues, raging hormones, and a number of other problems, which at the time of this presentation was gaining popularity in the festival circuit. I've most recently seen Packard give one of the few decent performances in Chris Heimerdinger's Passage to Zarahemla. His role, while minor, stole the show, in my opinion. Ben Lakey played almost as big a role in Hottieboombalottie's creation as Packard did.

Their presentation consisted of clips from the film coupled with advice for filmmakers trying to be successful - which is probably all of us. While I have little love for the film itself, much of their experience seemed useful to me. I'll repeat some of it here:

Packard is primarily an actor (and a talented one), and this film was an attempt at promoting his acting career by providing himself a starring role. This focus would have made it easy for him to surround himself with others who could do most of the other work, but this is not Packard's philosophy. Instead, he began with the assumption that the best way to make a successful movie was to know everything about what it takes to do so, which seems both reasonable and obvious. However, many people seem to think that having the idea for a movie is enough. Once the right idea comes along, everything else falls into place. Packard would argue that this just isn't so.

While his career focus didn't remove him from interest in the other aspects of filmmaking, it did make him an actor's director. Packard would give input on each performance, but allow his actors to make the final decisions. Every movement was designed to add meaning to the film. A lot of stupid things happen in the script, but Packard and Lakey emphasized that actors can't interpret their own roles as stupid or their performances will be phony. They have to believe that their characters really would act in the way that the script is telling them to, even if it is outrageous. The director can have influence in this regard.

As Lakey observed, most filmmakers have three goals: to make it cheap, make it fast, and make it quality. Only two of these can be accomplished, he argues, and on Hottieboombalottie, the standard sacrificed was speed. Packard's approach relied heavily on storyboarding, which took four months compared to the six it took to write the script. Shooting took 18 days. Much of the funding came from family members, and Lakey says they were careful not to pretend to know more than they did.

In order to save money, rehearsals were held while the crew was setting each scene, and only Utah actors were cast.

A few other points of advice:

- Plan really well and it works.

- A realistic post budget is important.

- Keep a low-stress environment: no yelling.

Nelson Says

As I mentioned in my post on that subject, Maclain Nelson is the Executive Producer and star of Dragon Hunter, and also appeared in other films at the festival, such as The Sinking of Santa Isabel, Father in Israel, and Dianatha's Crossing. For those who don't know what exactly an Executive Producer does, Nelson says that it's like being in charge of sales. He puts the money together.

Nelson graduated from BYU in 2003 and began, like Packard, as an actor. Nelson believes that filmmaking is about networking. After a failed audition for the LDS adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, he asked to be a volunteer gopher. Over the course of the production one thing led to another and he ended up as Assistant Director. He accomplished this by being the type of person who says "yes" to every problem and works hard to do it.

In Nelson's mind, there's no difference between an independent filmmaker and an entrepreneur. He says you should realize what you're good at and find other people to do the other things. A good film needs talent at artistic, technical, and business levels. He also says you should make your own films your way, rather than imitating someone else's style.

When forecasting the success of your film, Nelson says you should pick others in the same genre that have been huge successes, failures, and moderate performers, and average them. Then be honest with yourself and others about the risk involved. Your pitch should send the message, "Film is risky. We'll put money in the right places, manage costs better, and bring more money in."

Because he believes that the hardest part of making a film is making the money, Nelson gave the following points of advice/insight/encouragement on the process:
  • Make a list of anyone you can think of who might be interested in investing in your film.
  • Have a solid business plan.
  • Start an LLC for your film.
  • Keep meetings with potential investors to 15 minutes.
  • People are interested in film investing, so they will meet with you.
  • Keep your contacts
  • Sell investment units - don't try to get all the money from one place.
  • Most investors will buy one unit even if it's a little higher. They don't like partial units or multiple units as much.
  • If you don't have a big name actor, keep you budget under $500K unless it's a genre piece.
  • Big actors will work for less money if they like the script and if you can be flexible with scheduling (this was how Dragon Hunter got Issac Singleton - not a huge name but a recognizable face).
  • You only need one name actor, and with a $500K budget you can get it.
  • Make a list of the actors you want and start contacting them in order of preference.
  • Give them a week to respond before moving down the list.
  • Start small.
  • For musical (and other talent) find people who are hungry. Local/smaller bands are eager to get their music in a film and won't want outrageous sums of money for it.
  • Get an IMDb Pro account

For foreign distribution, Nelson suggests a Park City company called Kowan.

A few things to look forward to from Nelson's company: a sequel to Dragon Hunter called Dragon Hunter: Legend of the Hidden City, a vampire movie, a western, a musical. Not much more info on any of them than that.

If you're looking to get a script produced, Nelson accepts submissions at maclainnelson[at]hotmail[dot]com.


Because they don't really have much to do with the purpose of this blog, I won't be in-depth about these, but there were a couple of technical presentations about the RED camera and Visual Effects. The first was by Alan Williams and Zach Helton. Williams is a Digital Intermediate Producer at Universal Post & Cosmic Pictures. Helton is from Digital Cinema Tech.

This presentation was interesting, but from a state-of-the-art perspective. One comment the presenters made that is worth mentioning was regarding the importance of storytelling. They see actors and directors as necessary evils in the telling of a story - an interesting point of view. The presenters also reiterated Ben Lakey's comment about quality, price, and speed, and how a film can only have two of them in its favor.

Other that that, I'll only say that if anyone reading this is considering using the RED camera in a film, either of the gentlemen listed above can help you procure one and they would be happy to assist in your post production as well.

The VFX presentation was given by the good folks at Bluefire Studios, who did a number of effects shots for The Errand of Angels. They gave suggestions for setting up effects shots with the goal of lowering post production costs.

S.A.G. U.F.C.

This presentation was by Anne Seward Hansen from the Screen Actor's Guild and Marshall Moore of the Utah Film Commission. They spoke about producing films in Utah - specifically how the UFC's rebate program (at the time it was 15% of every dollar spent) helps bring productions to the state.

Again, because it's not as much to this forum's purposes, I'll just give a couple of bullet points.
  • It's in the state's best interests to have lots of productions and big productions.
  • Yay Utah! stats: Utah was 4th in the nation for production last year, the film industry created 994 jobs in Utah in fiscal 2008 and generated $36 mil. in revenues.
  • The minimum you have to spend to get a UFC rebate is $1 mil., but that will be lowered soon.
  • Utah is the only state in which a union film and a non-union film can be shot side-by-side without restriction.
  • Rebate is changing from 15% to 20%.
  • The $500K cap on the rebate is being removed and it will now be structured as a tax refund instead of a cash rebate.
  • 35 of the 38 submitted films have been approved - those that weren't were so trashy they didn't fit the state's values.
  • Ratings are not discussed in the approval process.
  • It may be possible to package several low-budget films from a single funding source in order to meet the minimum spend.

Last One I Promise - The LDS Film Forum

This would normally merit a post of its own, but I snuck out partway through to go to a different presentation, so I only have a little bit to report on.

This years forum was moderated by Gideon Burton and included presentations from Cathy Cowley and Katherine Morris. No doubt I'll do no justice to their thoughts and preparation by summarizing what little I heard.

Cowley's and Burton's comments can probably best be encapsulated in the questions they asked, which may merit further discussion here, but which I can't begin to answer without waxing long-winded and boring. Cowley contemplated the formal presentation of our identity (as in a eulogy) through film and asked, "Who do we want to think we are and try to become?"

Burton extrapolated with this query, "What aspect of our identity must be present in a film to call it LDS?"

Morris spoke about Paradox a-la-Terryl Givens. She claimed that Film offers a good medium to explore the disintegration of sacred space that Givens discusses in his works. This concept is basically that rather than separating everyday pursuits from spiritual reality, Mormonism eliminates the difference. Morris further said that because we think of film as a secular medium, sacred things portrayed thereon can be hard to receive.

It was at this point that I left the room, so I'm sorry to cut this off when it's finally getting interesting. Perhaps I can return to the subject in more depth later. What's left is a discussion of the presentation by Rick Stevenson, a non-LDS independent filmmaker, and reviews of several films. For now (assuming anyone has actually finished this post - thanks, if you have) I'll leave you to ponder.