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Project Greenlight finalist | Short about sex, death, existence, time

Lily in the Grinder

Shabbat Dinner

Comedy short about coming out | Featured in 55+ festivals

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Tracking Uber's surge pricing to guess what the weather might be

Archive for March, 2012

Making Shabbat Dinner Part 4: Distribution

A four-part series on just what went into making a short film. You can also read part 1, preproduction, part 2, production. and part 3, finishing the film.

In mid-January I watched the film for the first time in two weeks, writing down all my thoughts. I held two test screenings and got a lot of feedback about what worked and didn’t work and, even though I hadn’t wanted to make changes to the edit, I did. I looked for a composer and found the incredibly talented Gerardo Giraldo. He was able to compose things on the fly which, with an incredible sample library, sounded amazing. We had several many-hour meetings which were among the most gratifying of the whole project. After having spent so much time alone with the film, it was great to watch him improve it by adding restrained but crucial notes. This was the final breath of life the film needed.

I hired an intern, Alejandro Salazar, who became instrumental in finishing up the post-production and moving us into distribution. With his help, we applied to over thirty film festivals (most of which we are waiting to hear back from) and fulfilled the kickstarter project. When I realized that the t-shirt design in my head (“SHABBAT DINNER” in big letters and a list of names) was going to be stupid and nobody would ever wear the shirts, Alejandro had the idea to make a cool design the centerpiece of the shirts, like some band tour shirts. My friend Mark Grabiner designed the illustration, and Alejandro designed the back of the shirts. I then looked for someone to do the poster illustration. I was aware of the work of Michael Morgenstern because we have the same name, and gave him a call. He was an incredibly nice person and very interested in the project, but was far too busy to help at that time. So I emailed out to the Burning Man listserv and found Alexander Petrowsky, who came up with the design (pretty much in final form) after watching the film and looking at Michael’s style. He said that the film was about communication and silence, which is why he used the morse code machine in the kids’ mouths. Then there were mugs, stickers, and custom printed envelopes.

We threw a release party on February 23, and the t-shirts arrived that morning. It was so nice to see all my friends and show them what I had been working on, and also to be reunited with the people I’d enjoyed working with on the film. It was great to watch others enjoy the film, but even more than that I was so happy to have them there and be a part of a great community in New York.

The most gratifying moment so far in this process was a screening last Monday at the Harvard-Westlake Gay-Straight Alliance in Los Angeles. I showed to about fifteen kids, male and female, straight and gay; it was the first time I’d shown it to high-school aged kids. And they connected with it in a way that nobody had before. Their distracted whispers quickly turned to dead silence, which was soon punctuated by the two people sitting behind me in the audience saying “oh my god this is so good” every few minutes. A few of the kids told me that it spoke to them about their experiences and what they were going through right then, and they were so excited when they found out they could buy a copy of the DVD and show it to others. That’s what I really wanted out of this – to make a film that connected with people. I was just as prepared to find out that it was disconnected with the reality of their lives, that dialogue and motivations had been caricaturized in my hazy recollection of what it was like to be that age.

I’m hoping to take the film to high schools around the country; for now, it is beginning its festival run at the premiere at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. I’ll be there, and expect updates on how it goes!

So to everyone who was a part of this film, thank you for an amazing experience.

Making Shabbat Dinner Part 3: Finishing the Film

A four-part series on just what went into making a short film. You can also read part 1, preproduction, part 2, production, and part 4, distribution.

Post-production

Post production is arduous and time consuming, but immensely gratifying. The small changes accumulate slowly into full iterations, each one breathing a new and sometimes surprising life into the film. It is said that a film comes to life in the mind of a writer, dies on paper, comes to life through an actor, dies on film, and is resurrected through editing, but I think it dies and is born several times during post.

The first step was the edit, and with the need to deliver *something* to film schools by December 1 I wasted no time. A few days after shooting I began. Because we had shot with audio and video separate, the first step was to sync the audio. I went through every clip and found the point at which the clapper was slammed down, using that to sync the two; this process took two days! Then I began editing.

I usually divide my film into scenes and flit around the film, editing whichever scene strikes me and then moving on to another one when I find an impasse. I started with a few of the easier scenes, and then moved on to the scenes that were most crucial to the tone of the film. I usually like to start in the middle, because whatever editing style I choose for the film builds slowly until it is realized in the middle of the film.

The most difficult scene in this film was scene 6, the first kids’ scene in the bedroom. Some scenes took an hour for the first edit – this one took two days. A few lines were awkwardly written (oops), and because it was the first scene we shot we did several run-throughs before the actors were really comfortable with their characters. When they really hit on their game, we had already shot some of our angles and did not have the time to go back and reshoot them. I also wanted long takes, but using long takes was going to hurt my ability to choose the best delivery of each line. I edited a cut together that had far too many cuts, and then searched for long, uncut shots to replace things I had edited together. I found that some parts of the scene were quite boring at this stage, but once I tweaked the cut, the angles, and the sound and we added some small bits of music, I stopped getting that feedback.

After the rough cut was complete I showed it to my roommates. For my music video last year, I didn’t show it to a single person until it was finished, which was a personal challenge because I love getting responses from people. For this film, I felt that I needed all the feedback I could get. I started to hold test screenings once a week (for a total of four) and got invaluable responses to the characters and plot. It is really amazing that even when dialogue is already written and filmed, tweaks in editing can change so much

I sent off a very rough version on the film and then jammed hard on the gas to meet two festival deadlines on December 16. The festivals told me that if the film was accepted, they would screen the version that I sent in, so while it didn’t have to be completely finished, it had to be at a point where I would be okay showing it at a festival.

What followed was insanity. To get a film from 90% to 99%, or 99% to 99.9% requires almost a doubling of time. Polishing the cut, re-editing it in numerous small and big ways, and working on a preliminary mix of the sound took insane amounts of time.

Because we did not have a tripod during the shoot (a weird equipment malfunction) some of the footage was pretty shaky. I applied motion stabilization to almost every shot in the film, but because of issues with jelly roll from the 5D and T3i we shot on, the stabilization made the footage very wobbly and odd-looking. The only solution was to use Rolling Shutter, an plugin that removes jelly motion. It is very expensive, but has a 14 day free trial that we used. I enlisted the help of my roommates’ computers to render, but even with three modern computers, it took three days straight to render 15 minutes of footage.

With the jelly motion removed, I applied motion stabilization and marveled at the difference it made. Then came color correction.

Color Correction

Ah, the joys of color correction. With the amount that I talk about it, my friends will sometimes say “you love color correction.” No. Trust me..I don’t. I love *having* color corrected. Once I taught it to myself and had the experience of a film with consistent, controlled, and appealing colors, I could never go back. At Kris’ suggestion, we had shot using the Technicolor Cinestyle preset, which created a muted, flat image that was music to my eyes. (A flat image gives the greatest flexibility in color correction.)

I used color to differentiate the different spaces in the apartment and clean up the color palette; I even changed Eva’s dress from purple to red (we’d planned this out in the production, deciding that red fit her personality much better.)

End game

The last week of editing was the most intense, and I worked a few 16-hour days. I have a small room with a loft bed, and would climb down from the bed in the morning, start editing, brushing my teeth during the first render of the day, and keep going until it was time to go to sleep. I think I pushed the limits of my ability to stay awake, and I really regret doing that. My roommates told me that by the end I was speaking freakishly slowly; there is a two-day period that I don’t really remember. I was driven on by these deadlines and neglected my health, sanity, and sleep. I remember going to the supermarket in a stupor and forgetting all social skills: I knew that I was supposed to say “hi, how are you” to cashiers at the supermarket, but I forgot whether I was supposed to say it to other shoppers while shopping, so I almost approached several people with a mumbles “hi, how are you.” It began to seem comical to me that the world was operating on a schedule. I would walk down the street for food and be mildly confused that everyone else was doing the same thing: going to work, asleep, or whatever it was at that given time. After spending a week recovering, I vowed not to do that again; very little is worth that kind of lifestyle.

With twelve hours to go to the deadline, the computer refused to render the film. It was giving me out of memory errors due to the motion stabilization plugin. I realized I had to render the film in about six segments, each of which would take a half hour. Perfect, I thought. I need some sleep. So I would set the segment to render, set my alarm for a half hour from now, and pass out, awakening confused a short while later. Then I would watch the segment, make any changes I noticed needed to be made, and start rendering the next one. By about noon on the day of the deadline, I’d slept three hours and had a finished DVD in my hand, printed with an image on it and a DVD jacket. I handed it into some festivals and mailed it to a few others, and then slept for eight hours straight.

The next day I worked all day on a friend’s photo shoot, and then a day later, I flew to Florida to sleep and rest for a week, deciding not to look at the footage again until mid-January.

Making Shabbat Dinner Part 2: Production in 2 days

A four-part series on just what went into making a short film. You can also read part 1, preproduction, part 3, finishing the film, and part 4, distribution.

Pre-production

Pre-production was well underway and Aidan began putting together the shoot. He found a cinematographer, costume designer, assistant cameraperson, sound recordist and boom operator, transportation coordinator, production assistant, and assistant makeup artist (my friend Alejandro did the makeup.) He put together a call sheet and came with Kris and I the night before the shoot to dress the set.

The room we wanted to use for William’s room was a kids’ room that held three-year-olds, and it barely resembled the 15-year-old’s room that Aidan crafted. He turned one of the cribs into a bed, hung posters, and filled the bookshelf with appropriate books. We borrowed toys from my friends who lived upstairs and bought a few others. (The Newton’s Cradle arrived in the mail broken, which was perfect as they usually end up broken after a week or so anyways.) I wanted an old mac computer to place the film firmly in the 1990s and posted about it on Facebook; luckily, a friend saw the post and noticed a computer monitor being thrown away in Williamsburg. I raced over and grabbed it.

Kris, the cinematographer, and I, went over the shooting style and discussed the cinematic language we wanted to use in making the film: the kids’ room with long, static shots, solid, clean lines, and a color palette of blue and red, and the living room with frenetic movement, mostly reaction shots, extreme closeups, and a color palette of yellow and red. The roughness of the movement and shooting style was going to correspond with the parents’ emotional states and level of drunkenness.

Stella, the costume designer, and I, went in an iterative process of costume design. She is an expert in clothing and was able to figure out exactly what clothes each of the characters would wear, picking the right shoes, shirts, pants, etc. for their personalities, and in the correct trends of the 1990s! When she sent me a photo of a long sleeve plaid button-down shirt with a t-shirt underneath I was elated – that was my childhood summed up in clothing!

With the kickstarter campaign wrapping up, we held a read-through for the cast to meet each other (with everyone but Eva, who had not yet returned to New York.) We ran through the whole film a few times over and then dived into individual moments; because the shooting schedule was so tight, this was going to be our only real opportunity to work on character. Stella turned my room into a costume fitting shop, with safety pins and bits of clothing everywhere. I was very happy with the read-through and thought that the cast had the characters down.

The rest of the week before shooting was a frenzy of activity, though more for Aidan than for me. He bought remaining set pieces and coordinated camera rental, and I borrowed the lights from a friend. I gave the script another polish and created the final production draft.

THE SHOOT!

And finally came the day of the shoot. Shooting is the most stressful part of a production for me. We had spent two months on the film so far (part time) and I knew that I was going to be spending at least two more months, more or less full time, editing the film. The more we could accomplish during shooting, the less work I would have to do in post to edit around mistakes we’d made. And if we couldn’t at least shoot every scene, the whole project would be bust unless we came up with a creative way to tell the story differently.

But shooting is also the most fun of the whole project. We had an incredible time and all the actors dove straight into their parts with gusto. Thanks to the incredible professionalism of the shoot and the actors and crew, we were able to pull off shooting some scenes in only twenty minutes (though others took over three hours.) Aidan’s notification that we had all the time that we needed to shoot a scene was, a few hours later, replaced by an urging to move on to the next one, and so it was that our pace oscillated between lackadaisical and breakneck. There were heated moments, as there always are, but we pulled through and came out with some incredible footage (and some footage that needed work, which was unavoidable given the time constraints.)

Two long days, and Alejandro and I headed back to my place to celebrate the end of the shoot. We feasted that night on the prop chicken and green beans, and I took two days without even looking at the footage.

Stay tuned for Part 3!

Making Shabbat Dinner Part 1: Preproduction in 2 months

A four-part series on just what went into making a short film. You can also read part 2, production, part 3, finishing the film, and part 4, distribution.

I’d never seen the point of making a short film; or rather, I saw the point and still hadn’t wanted to. For most directors, a short film is like a calling card: scrambled to be made in a tiny budget (or just as often, with an inappropriately large one) for the sole purpose of showing that yes, this filmmaker can direct a film. Film Marketing 101 (it’s a confusing course) dictates that the film be connected to a feature project the creators want to make.

Now, I recognize that this is the way the world works, but that doesn’t mean I like it. Contrary as I am, I really had a difficult time wrapping my head around the idea of finding a story, getting together a cast and crew, shooting and editing it, all for the purpose of *showing that we are capable of executing our various roles.* Which is why, when I made a short film, I wanted it to mean something…even just something small.

Shabbat Dinner came into being when I decided to apply to film school. Several of the schools I was applying to required narrative samples of my work, and when I looked through what I had done I could find nothing that I wanted to show. I decided to find a few actors, grab a camera, and write a few-page script around whatever people and location I could find.

Then I thought about making a scene from a TV pilot I was working on about gay 14-16-year-olds living in Los Angeles in the 1990s. I thought I could write something that would stand on its own as an advocacy piece and a slice of life, and eventually find a home on the public internet as something for kids to connect to: two kids, in different stages of coming out, dealing with the expectations of their parents.

Aidan and I had been talking about making a film together for a while; he is a writer and we had considered a writing/directing collaboration, but he also mentioned that he would be interested in producing. We met in mid-September and decided to make the film together. This was the push I needed – a deadline (December 1) and a collaborator. I wrote the first draft of the script in three hours.

Script

Ha! No I didn’t… The actual writing, in front of a computer, of the three-page script took three hours. The thought before it took forever. Usually I will spent 5-15 days staring at a wall, hitting it with my head, or punching it with a fist (open palm sometimes too.) It took about five days in this case. I solicited input from a wide variety of people – Aidan, my roommates, and several mentors in the industry, and went through ten drafts before it was ready to go.

Location and Cast

Our to-do list at this point could be broken into two categories: things that we might not have gotten and absolutely needed if we weren’t going to change the script, and to-do items that we knew could get done. The former consisted of a perfect location, six actors who could play the roles well, and the money to make it (although that last one was a bit more fluid – less money would not have killed the project, just made it of lower quality.)

I asked just about everyone I knew who had an apartment, and discovered that my friend Pete (who happens to be a lawyer) lives in a beautiful two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side. In fact, I had been to an apartment in that same building and was imagining that apartment when I wrote the script!

Finding actors proved to be a bigger challenge. I wanted kids who were as young as possible; even though the story would work with 22-year-olds, I felt that the more innocent the kids seemed, the more powerful the story would be. Aidan set up an open casting call and sent feelers to tons of friends, but nothing felt perfect. I finally found Chris London through an old friend who works as a drama teacher. When he read the script, though, he panicked – I had told my friend that it was about gay youth, but not that it included a kissing scene and the suggestion of much more. Very upset, she sent me an email with a stern discussion of casting ethics and Chris nearly backed out. We were terrified that it wouldn’t work out. I told Chris to come to the audition and talk to us, and he agreed and then decided to do it. We laughed recently at the thought that he almost didn’t.

I met Dan Shaked through a friend in a writers’ group that I was in. I had spoken to about five people that day, some of whom weren’t very good and some who just looked wrong for the part. Dan looked the part, felt very passionate about the film, and delivered the lines really well, so he was in.

Finding good 40-ish-year-old actors to work on a small project is difficult; they either are successful in the field or have left it altogether. We were lucky to find Peter Tedeschi (who was coming back from a break in acting) and Michael Wikes (who had left the theater for 20 years to do advertising.)

Figuring that we might find older talented actors looking to do a small film in the theater community, I asked my friend Matt Sigl, who works in casting, to name 15 theater actors who would fit in each role. He did, and I spent a week hounding their agents and searching for them on Facebook. I finally got ahold of one actor who later changed his mind about being in the film, but recommended the fabulous Eva Kaminsky, who was in Chicago with God of Carnage at the time. When I skyped with Eva from Whole Foods and she started a line reading, her entire face morphed into a perfect mask of Rebecca. I knew she had to be in the film, and we scheduled it around her return to make that work.

Kickstarter

The next challenge was getting the funding for the film. We decided to do a Kickstarter campaign, which had the added benefit of geting our friends and family involved early on in the process. We recorded a video of me describing the film and why I wanted to make it, edited it together, and put it up on the Kickstarter page. We were offering rewards like DVDs of the film, admission to the release party, swag from the film, and a film credit. I made a Facebook page for the film and began spreading the word – through email, Facebook, chat, and in-person conversations.

The response bowled me over. It was above what we had hoped for, and was truly amazing to see friends indicating support for us, not with their words, but with their money. Every email we got about a new donor warmed my heart. I didn’t want to overwhelm people with emails, but I also got the feedback from many friends that they intended to give but needed another push. My friend Anna, who runs a nonprofit, told me that I had probably only gotten about half of what people wanted to give, and I would need to send reminders. We decided on three e-mails: one at the start of the campaign, one at the midway point with an announcement of our actors, and one a few days before the end of the campaign.

Through the campaign, we raised over $3,843, which was 50% above our goal of $2,530!