Monday, March 30, 2009

The Waiting Game

[Gracie empties Thom's flask at the Washington Monument]

Damn, I HATE this game. I could use a drink myself.

Today was the day I was supposed to hear from the London Independent Film Festival to see if we got in, but haven't gotten any word from them. I have next to zero expectation of getting into that one anyway, but I just want to know.

Later this week I should find out if we made it into the Maryland Film Festival. I can't even talk about that one, it is too nerve-wracking. I am glad it is one of the first ones I will find out about, I don't want to wonder about it any longer.

For the next 11 weeks, I should be hearing from about one festival a week, yay or nay. I oscillate between being very excited about this, because it is something exciting to look forward to every week, to wringing my hands, wondering how I will feel if I start collecting one "NO" after the other? As my British friend Matthew would say, the whole thing, "does my head in."

But tonight I sat down with the big desk calendar and the colored mini-Sharpies I bought at Staples the other day, and logged all the info on the festivals I have submitted to so far: deadlines for submission (to those I haven't sent a DVD to yet), notification dates (when they tell me if I am in), and the dates of the actual festivals. This turned out to be a useful exercise in more ways than one. As I copied down the info from each festival, I was reminded exactly why I had submitted to each one, and that made me feel better, because I DO have specific reasons for submitting to almost all of them (though there are a few long shots in there for good measure. I love long shots. Ask anyone who has been to the track with me!). It had been awhile since I had thought of them each in such specifics, and lately I had been feeling like, oh dear lord, did I just waste a boatload of money submitting to festivals willy-nilly? And did I really just say "willy-nilly"?

But if course I didn't. That's not how I roll. I have reasons for (nearly) everything I do. I'm just nervous, that's all. Just like when I used to have photography exhibits. I would painstakingly develop and print the black and white photos myself, mat and frame them, measure the wires so they would all hang at the exact same height, curate so that the walls were well-balanced but interesting, and then worry that no one would show up. Then people would show up, and buy some photos, and everything was right with the world. Every artist I know feels the same way before every show. It is part of the process.

I want to talk more about it but I'm afraid I'll jinx myself, so I will leave it at that. I should have news for you soon, stay tuned, my faithful ones.

P.S. If you like my blog, I have found another you might like that sort of reminds me of mine, in that it is very first-person, taking you through the experience step by step, highs and lows, triumphs and roadblocks. This young man, Paul Ridley, just set a record for being the youngest American to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean, and did it to raise money for cancer research. He makes me look like a slacker. Check it out from the beginning, it is quite a journey of body and spirit:

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Ups and the Downs

[Cheryl Scungio always plays the sweet soccer mom. But not in my movie.]

I received a follow-up email this morning from The Heart of England Festival, where "Smalltimore," is screening on June 8th in Tamworth, England. It was a list of the awards nominations, which, I am sorry to say, "Smalltimore," is not on. I told you before that I would share the disappointments with you as well as the shining moments, so I thought I should let you know.

To be honest, the only reason I thought we MIGHT have a shot at a nomination, and, indeed, the only reason I submitted to this festival in the first place, is because there are awards categories for both, "American Feature," and, "First Film (by a director)". The HOE is only in its second year, so I thought it was at least possible. I am a little disappointed, but not crushed or anything, and I still plan on going to the festival (somehow).

It will save me some money in the long run, because "Smalltimore" screens on the first day of the festival, and the awards ceremony is on the last day of the festival, so I would have stayed in Tamworth all week, but I probably will just stay a few days now. It might work out for the best altogether, because there is another festival at the end of that week that we might get into, and if I can get into and go to that then I won't feel like I am missing anything in Tamworth, though "Smalltimore" would still be eligible for the Best of Festival Award.

I don't really have any delusions of grandeur, and as I have said before, if "Smalltimore" wins an award for anything, it would likely be for the soundtrack - 37 original songs by 11 Baltimore artists - of which I am very proud, and I would love, love, love for those artists to receive some well-deserved kudos.

Romantic comedies are a hard sell at festivals, at least romantic comedies that don't have big stars in them. When most people think, "film festival," they think, "weird," "unexpected," "bizarre". And "Smalltimore," is none of those things. In my completely unbiased opinion ;) it is simply a story well-told, that most people can relate to, with a solid cast, cinematography above and beyond what is expected of most indies, and a killer soundtrack. So, I am happy to just get INTO a few festivals.

The timing of this notice is probably good, it is a minor test run as to how to deal with the blows as I will inevitably start receiving some rejection notices very soon. For the next six weeks I will be hearing yay or nay from at least one festival per week. In a way, I feel like every submission is a long shot, with the exception of certain festivals like the ones that are specifically centered around female filmmakers, though there are only a couple of those. There are a few that, I'll admit, if we don't get into, I will be rather upset about.

But on the other hand, I know I'll be fine no matter what, and I stand by the movie no matter what. I know that I (and a whole lot of other people) really worked my ass off and did the absolute best I could do, and just getting the thing DONE is equivalent to "success". If I was a person who was very beholden to what other people think of me, I wouldn't have put myself out there (i.e., making the movie) to begin with. It's all good. It's all very, very good.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Will Lurie, as Andrew

Will Lurie (and just so you know, there is supposed to be a little accent over the "e", but I can't figure out how to make my computer type that) is sort of the enigma of the Smalltimore cast. That actually also suits his character, Andrew. Like Andrew, Will is a good guy, agreeable and friendly, but has a rather stealthy presence. He flies under the radar.

After the first round of auditions at Baltimore Theater Project last April, I had not found a single person that I could really see in the role of Andrew. I knew from the get-go that this might be a harder role to cast because he needs a certain range, but I hadn't found anyone who could even look the part, let alone act it. Johnny (Benson) probably could have, but I saw him more as Bentley from the beginning, the role he ended up with.

In May I attended the Stonehenge auditions, held at the Creative Alliance, and that was where I found Will. Stonehenge, by the way, goes well beyond rocking - it kicks ASS. It takes place again this year, on May 31, my birthday. I am considering having my usual birthday celebration the day before, just so I can go to Stonehenge, even though at the moment I am not even casting anything! It is just SO much valuable information crammed into one day, it is hard to resist. Last year I got to see 125 actors audition in a span of 5 or 6 hours. It is fast-paced and exhausting, but there are a lot of good people to be found there.

I devised a simple system: I had three folders, one each red, yellow, and green. Impressive actors went in the green file; actors who I thought were good but only for specific types went in the yellow; and people I would never, ever cast in anything went in the red. Out of 125 people, I only ended up with about 10 in the red folder, maybe 2 to 3 dozen in the green folder, the majority of actors went in the yellow folder. When possible, I'd write one- or two-word notes on their resumes. "Funny", "Expressive face", "can cry", stuff like that. If they were really good, I'd put a star also. Will ended up in the green folder, with a star, and the note, "v.cute."

I contacted him and he came to the call back day, the second round of auditions. He did a great job and got the part. Early in the day, though, something was jumping out at me and I gave his resume a second look - no film experience, only stage. That explained it. In just a sentence or two, I explained the difference to Will - you are no longer, "playing to the back row," no need to project so much. That camera is going to be right up in your face, even if the camera is 20 feet away from you. Dial it down. Will did, and I rarely had to remind him after that.

Between takes on the set, usually I would see Will laughing with Johnny or playing pool with Phil Calvert. He always seemed to be having a good time, but he was never what I would call boisterous, never needed to be the center of attention. It was only in retrospect that I realized he was one of the youngest members of the cast. I never thought about it during filming because he always handled himself with such maturity.

Will had to drive about an hour from D.C. to be on the set, so he showed up when I needed him and skated as soon as I could let him go, so he didn't get to fraternize as much as the others did. It worked for his character, Andrew, though, because Andrew is the outsider, the guy who just moved here from New York. Almost everything on the set was art imitating life. Will was the theater guy from D.C. among all these Baltimore film actors, but they always made him feel welcome. As far as I can tell, there was never any discord between them, and I know sometimes that can be the case between theater and film actors.

Will was also very flexible, never complained about the drive. The real pain for him was that though he only had a medium-sized role, every scene he was in took place in a different setting. If I was able to just shoot Will's scenes all in a row, I probably could have shot him out in two days. But he had scenes in The Wind-Up Space, Dougherty's, Fin Art Gallery, Federal Hill Park, Mrs. Talford's Mansion, and Minato Sushi restaurant - all of which were shot on different days. Poor thing. And what really sucked was that there is a continuous part where he meets Gracie at the gallery, they later go to Federal Hill Park, and then after that go to Minato, but we had to shoot all three on different days and out of order. We shot the middle part, on Federal Hill, first. On a later date, we shot the first part, in the gallery - and Will forgot to bring the outfit he had worn in the park. We managed to salvage that just by adding a line at the gallery. After Gracie tells Andrew she can meet up with him after work, he says, "Good, that will give me time to change." Problem solved.

But when we were ready to film the last part at Minato, Will forgot his Federal Hill outfit again. He was already in Baltimore the day before that scheduled day, to shoot another scene, and was going to stay in town and shoot the Minato scene the next day. But he didn't have the outfit. He gave me the puppy-dog-please-don't-make-me-drive-back-to-D.C. eyes but there was no way around it this time. "I can't do it, Will," I told him. "You can't change clothes three times in back-to-back scenes. You're not Elizabeth Taylor." He knew it was what had to be done, and he drove home and came back the next day with the right outfit, without complaint.

Another good thing about Will is his "look". I think his cast mate, Tiffany Ariany, who plays Angela (predator to Will's prey) put it best. I heard her say to him one day, "You look really cute on screen. But you don't look like anyone else." It is absolutely true, and for casting, that is a very good thing to find. I swear, most of these under-25-pale-effeminate-white-boys that are all the rage now all look exactly the same to me, I don't know any of their names and I can't tell them apart.

I do have some funny stories about Will, but they mostly have to do with his character and things that happen in the movie that I can't tell you about. So you'll just have to see for yourself!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Research Can Sometimes Be Helpful

[The Real Keith Bentley, after I accosted him in my pool room.]

Well. I am so excited about the Heart of England Festival in June, and I am fairly determined to make it there, somehow, though I am pretty strapped for cash. I might have to have a fundraiser or something. It got me thinking about the other festivals I've submitted to, how good a chance "Smalltimore" stands in getting in to them, and if I will be able to afford to go to all or most of the festivals it gets into (hoping that it gets into more than one!).

So I went back through the festivals that I had submitted to and looked at them a little more closely. The St. John's Women's Film Festival kind of jumped out at me. I found this one initially by searching the tag "women" on I saw it was in Canada, and Bentley is always talking about how gorgeous St-Something-or-Other is, and I thought it was the same place, so I submitted. It sounds like a very cool festival, completely dedicated to promoting women within the field, and they are in their 20th year, so they must know what they are doing. There aren't that many movies that are written, directed, produced, and edited by the same woman. So I figured I had a decent shot.

Later I told Bentley about it and his reaction was, "St. John's?!" I said, yea, isn't that the place you are always going on about? He said no, that is St. Andrew's. Oh. Well, St. John's is still in Canada, right? Yes, but... "It's in NEWFOUNDLAND," he said. His mere tone of inflection let me know that the two Saints were nowhere near each other.

But I knew it was east coast Canada, so it couldn't be that bad, right? Wrong. Very, very wrong. I tried to find a flight from Baltimore to St. John's, but everything had me flying to Toronto first. So I started at St. John's airport and backtracked. There is ONE flight on Continental, out of Newark. And it is $500 minimum round trip (add taxes and fees and I am sure it is closer to $700), and that doesn't include hauling my butt to Newark!

That's absurd, I thought. It's CANADA. I'll drive.

Apparently not.

I google mapped it. One-thousand eight hundred and ninety-six miles. 106 miles of that on a ferry in the North Atlantic. With my car. In October. I really, really think not.

Everybody has google-mapped their own address, you know, when you zoom in closer and closer until you can see your house? Try that with St. John's, Newfoundland. It doesn't look that bad when you are zoomed all the way in. It looks like a beautiful port city, and people have posted some very nice flicker photos on there (the ones of the icebergs floating by is what had me saying, oh HELL no to the idea of the ferry). But zoom out ever so slightly and you will see what I suddenly remembered that I have seen many, many times when flying over Newfoundland going to or from Europe. Tundra. Frozen. Hundreds of barren miles of it. There is like ONE main road, and it starts at the southwest corner of the land mass, goes almost all the way north and then heads due east across the entire thing until it gets to St. John's. No joke, I seriously on more than one occasion have looked down from inside an airplane to this blindingly white piece of land and asked myself, "People LIVE here?!" and then anxiously waited until we came into view of land that was green, or at least brown, and showed signs of civilization. Cuz if we crashed in the middle of Newfoundland, ain't NOBODY coming to get us.

I know from Bentley that winter starts pretty early in Canada, and as the festival there is in late October, I was afraid it would be totally frigid by then. I looked up St. John's on Wikipedia and to my surprise, the average temp is about 52 degrees Fahrenheit, with lows in the high 30s. Not nearly as bad as I thought. But the very last line of the climate chart was what made me do a double-take. "Hours of sunshine (per MONTH): 106."

106 HOURS of sunshine for the whole MONTH! Less than 3 1/2 hours a day. And that's the average, so by the end of the month it is probably less than 3 hours a day! Well, I guess it is the perfect place to have a film festival, though. Doesn't it always feel weird to come out of a theater and it is still daylight?

Honestly, I really hope that, "Smalltimore," gets into the St. John's festival. I would so like to be a part of something that tries to give women a break into the boys' club that is filmmaking. I'd find a way to get there. Bentley said he might even go with me if I do. But my cute little car will stay safely in dry dock here in Baltimore, believe you me.

Smalltimore's First Laurel

This is a good feeling. An accomplishment that feels even better in that I get to share it with my cast, crew, contributing artists and musicians, friends who loaned me their homes and businesses, and of course my executive producers. To all of you - take a moment, take a bow, brag on yourself. Enjoy!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Cutest Story Ever

[Joseph and Sean Veazey wrestle at the Federal Hill playground in "Smalltimore".]

Okay, just gotta tell you this quick little story today. I was at my uncle's house over the weekend, and his two boys Joey (10 years old) and Sean (8) have a scene in "Smalltimore". I thought they would have been pretty excited when their Mom told them that the movie was going to show in England, so I asked them if the were psyched, and they looked at me a little blankly. My aunt Irene said, "I told them but... I don't think they really know what that means."

I don't think Sean has had a geography class yet, and if Joseph has, they are probably just working on the United States at this point. I hadn't thought about that. So I tried to explain. "The movie is going to be showing in England. It is another country. People in another country are going to see you in the movie. Isn't that cool?"

The little one scrunched up his face and asked, "How will they know what we're saying?"

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Spin Me Right Round

(Cheryl Scungio as a rather drunken Gracie)

I'm a pretty happy camper today. Since Wednesday, our fans on the Facebook page, "Smalltimore, the Movie," (don't forget the comma) has TRIPLED! Mostly through Kyle Holtgren's, Phil Calvert's, and my own friends, but we are also pulling in random people along the way, and I love that.

Eric got on board the other day, after I made a rather pointed plea to my friends who had not yet become fans. He is new to Facebook, and he asked me if it got me anything, having people sign up. Not per se, but it definitely helps. It is all about keeping the buzz going, keeping people talking about it, and if you think about it, it is kind of hard to keep people talking about a movie they've never seen, and don't know when they'll see it. But that is exactly what I have been doing for almost a year and a half now, via this blog, layering that with the occasional mass email, and now adding the Facebook page.

Anyone who has ever been to one of my parties or events can tell you that I know how to plan a good time, and a good turnout. Because what I am doing for Smalltimore is exactly what I do for all my events. Like I said in the very beginning, that is what making, and now marketing, a movie is - event planning. Scheduling, being organized, making sure everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing them and finding a way to reward them for doing it so that they stay excited about it. More than anything, it is about communication.

People forget things, and get bored quickly. We're all busy, and in this world where we watch the news with remote control in hand, flipping between several channels which each have one or more talking heads in the middle, various stock, weather, and time info in the corners and a streaming ticker across the bottom, our attention span has been reduced to the point that we require our information in sound bites. Collective social A.D.D.. Just the facts, Ma'am. And quickly!

Now that I have the FB page for the movie, that fills that niche, and I am glad to have it, despite the "new" FB being so annoying. But there are quite a few people that read this blog regularly, it gets an average of about 30 hits a day now. Until recently it was averaging 20, but it has gone up since I have been writing a lot lately. Which is nice, because I was afraid it would go down, that people would get bored with hearing so much from me!

I think the blog serves a certain purpose that I can't accomplish on FB. It is pretty stream-of-consciousness for me, and I think we all enjoy getting inside someone else's head, but my posts usually end up being some sort of story, and most people still like a good story. That's why we still love the movies! Especially if it is some sort of inside scoop, and even more so if it is some sort of inside scoop on a person. The days that receive the biggest number of hits are always the days that I post a profile of one of the actors (and my stat tracker differentiates between how many individuals view the page and how many page loads there are, so that number is not skewed by a few people returning to the page multiple times). BTW, Kyle, the biggest hits I have received in one day came on the day I profiled Phil Calvert - so don't think you're sailing away with that steak dinner quite yet. I think he is due for a comeback (see the posting earlier this week, "Feed a Starving Actor")!

I discovered that this (profiling individuals) was a very good tool a few years ago when I organized a couple group art shows with some of my artist friends here in Baltimore. I didn't have FB then, so I sent them out via mass emailing. We had great turnouts at both events. I received loads of compliments on them and no one minded at all that I was sending them a rather lengthy email once a week. As a matter of fact, once in awhile, I'll run into someone I haven't seen for a bit and they will tell me that they miss my mass emails!

I think the key is keeping it personal, that's what I try to do here. And funny, of course. It's not that hard. This IS Baltimore, after all. And Baltimore + actors = Plenty of material to work with.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Blog My Mango!

To answer your first question, the title of this post means nothing. Just unrelated thoughts mashing together in my head. And it sounds like some random thing that Kyle Holtgren (pictured above, as David in "Smalltimore") would shout, unprovoked and loudly, after several cocktails at Dionysus just to make anyone with him laugh.

I just got back from having lunch with my good friend Christie Thorndill, who is in town for a visit. She used to live here but moved to Florida last summer, and so of course part of our lunch was spent covering the pros and cons of Baltimore and why people miss it when they leave. I was driving, and when we left, I asked Christie where she wanted me to drop her off. "Baltimore is your oyster!" I said. She replied, "I thought oysters were toxic." "No," I said, "they're an aphrodisiac!" And that sort of sums Baltimore up, in a weird way. One woman's toxin is another woman's aphrodisiac. Christie thought about this for a moment. "Actually, I'd prefer a mango."

I am boycotting Facebook today, because as you probably already know, the new version of Facebook sucks and everyone hates it. So I vowed not to log on at all today, and I am sticking by that, although I accidentally logged on at 12:49am because my computer was tied up burning DVDs to send to festivals for about two hours and I wanted to check it one last time before signing off. So, I won't get back on Facebook until at least 12:49am tonight.

Right before I went out to lunch, I received a text message on my phone from Kyle, tempting me to log on to FB. Yesterday I posted on the Smalltimore the Movie FB page that it would make me very happy if we could reach 100 fans of the page that day. Since announcing the "Feed a Starving Actor" competition (scroll down a few postings for details), our number of fans jumped from 50 to (as of signing off last night) 87, newcomers being mostly fans of Kyle or Phil Calvert, whose horns are now locked in a battle to the death over a juicy slab of meat. I was a bit disappointed in that we should have easily seen it hit 100. I have about 120 friends of my own on Facebook, and hardly any have become a fan of the movie page, which I don't really get, since every one of them know how much blood, sweat, tears, time, energy, love, and money I have sunk into this project! But never fear, Kyle, upon seeing my plea, posted, "I'm on it!" So he texted me today when we hit 98... then 99... then finally, Oh Joy!, 100!!!

You have to enjoy these little victories along the way, they help to keep you going, as the road to the big brass ring is long, rough, and uphill all the way. I am including links to this blog and the FB page on the DVDs I am sending to festivals now. It is the way people find out about things, it is the way people market interactively, and the great thing is, it works, AND it's free! When I send the DVD off to the Atlanta Underground Festival, you better believe that I will be mentioning how many Atlanta folk have become fans (via Phil Calvert) on our FB page. I think they need to come up with a cool name for themselves, as do Kyle's peeps, so think on that.

Definite props to the Phil Calvert contingent for being such loyal friends to their guy, but I gotta tell ya, though you are beating up on everyone else, Kyle is mopping the floor with all y'all. I have about 5 actor profiles left to do, and I know Kyle is anxiously awaiting what I have to say about him on the set of Smalltimore, but he is going to have to wait a little longer for that. Today is just my specific shout out to him for getting the word out like crazy, and always being so supportive and enthusiastic. It makes me smile, it sometimes just cracks me up, it makes the whole thing more fun for me and it really does keep me going. There are days when I really need that.

So, kudos to the Man of the Hour, Kyle Holtgren! Next cosmo's on me!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Johnny Benson, as Bentley

Ahh, Bentley. Keith Bentley, in real life, is quite a character. As is Johnny Benson. So Johnny Benson PLAYING Keith Bentley... "hilarity ensues," is an overused, but completely appropriate turn of phrase.

Now, to be clear, the character of Keith Bentley is not really Keith Bentley exactly, but rather a characterization, and sometimes a caricature, of Keith Bentley, loosely based on my friend Keith Bentley, who actually is an artist, as is the character, Keith Bentley. Is that clear enough for you?

As with many of the characters in, "Smalltimore," I used friends, acquaintances, events and circumstances as jumping-off points - and then leapt.

When I first started writing this script, one of the most difficult things was, for me, to let go of my tight grasp on events and the exact details of how they transpired, and learn to massage them with a little poetic license until I could weave a bunch of interesting experiences I have had, fudging the details where necessary, into a cohesive storyline of events. Equally difficult for me was letting go of the characters that were based, albeit loosely, on people I know in real life, and letting the actor put their own spin on them.

For example: Keith Bentley actually did a screen test for the character of Bentley. But he was so nervous about it that he couldn't play the loose, funny, relaxed, neurotic, hot mess, hysterical Bentley that I know and love. And he was (is) living in Canada, which would have been a production scheduling nightmare. So, I had to cast the part.

I remember Johnny Benson's audition very clearly. Not so much what he read but how he read it and his general stage presence. I am pretty sure he was within the first FIVE people who read on the first night of auditions, so when someone sticks out in your memory 80+ people and two exhausting nights later, that is a pretty good sign. He didn't seem nervous at all, sort of threw away the lines, which is how Bentley often talks. I also don't remember exactly what he was wearing, but he definitely has his own style, which lies somewhere between vampire and pirate, if you can imagine a vampire or a pirate tending bar at a tiki lounge. I don't know if that makes any sense, if you know Johnny it might. Maybe that's just me. He's just so relaxed and comfortable with everyone at all times, you know, like all good bartenders are. I've never seen him in an awkward or nervous moment. And he owns a couple of cool Hawaiian shirts.

Ann Mladinov was my second pair of eyes at the audition. As soon as Johnny walked out of the theater, I looked at her and we both said, "Bentley."

Now, it wasn't as simple as that. There was another actor that we also both really liked as Bentley, and it was a very difficult decision between the two of them. There were a few deciding factors, and it really came down to the wire. Several people whose advice I trust were pushing me in the other direction, but there was something about Johnny that my gut was telling me, that's the one. I know in the end the right person got the part.

One of the factors that pushed me towards Johnny was that after a grueling day (about 6 hours straight) of callbacks, I had a little cocktail party for the actors so I could chat with them a bit more, and see how they interacted with each other as well. I know that for some, this was the most nerve-wracking part of the day. I could see it on their faces, and I empathized. How comfortable would you be, socializing, sometimes side by side with your competition, while talking to your potential director? I didn't envy them. But Johnny... he was so fluid, it surprised me that he didn't know any of these people already because he was so comfortable and sociable, I think he even exchanged contact info with a few of them, in case they, or he, didn't get a part in "Smalltimore," so they could still reach each other.

Some of my more experienced director friends warned me that I should not give bonus points to actors who can socialize so easily, nor demerits to the wallflowers, of which there were a few. But, to a degree, I disagree. If the wallflower is far and away a better actor, well then of course, it's no question, they should have the part. If it were just about being my friend, well then... Bentley would have actually played Bentley (I love you, Bentleeeeey...).

But when it is neck-and-neck... I'm going to go for the person who is blending with their potential castmates as if they were old friends. But what if they are doing that on purpose, you ask? What if they know that is what you are looking for and they are just giving you what you want to see? Well then, I say, that's really good acting! Sign 'em up!

Johnny was a pleasure to work with and had great chemistry with everyone, but especially with Cheryl (Gracie) and Kelly (Mel). One of my favorite scenes is the three of them in Dionysus, sitting on the sofa having a beer and picking on each other like only the best of friends can and get away with it. Johnny did a great job of nailing a certain aspect about Bentley (whom he has yet to meet). There is a way, in real life, that Bentley always seems to be the one being picked on, and yet he often manages to have the last laugh; the verbal "love slaps" just seem to roll right off him. He never overthinks anything, and he never holds a grudge. I have known him for almost exactly ten years and we have never had a fight. I once made a mean comment on one of his Facebook photos (which was meant to be funny, and would have unmistakably been if delivered in person) to which he typed a reply, "That was just mean," which, had that been delivered in person, would also have been unmistakably funny. But, fearing I had truly hurt his feelings, I apologized all over myself in a note. His immediate response was, "Good lord, are you drunk?!" He'd never take anything that seriously, as I should have known.

Johnny definitely put his own twist on Bentley, and once I saw where he was going with it, I pushed him to go even further. It worked very well and I think Johnny is funny in every single scene, but in no way buffoonish or slapstick. Johnny's humor is concurrently subtle and apparent. During production, I was on the phone with (the real) Bentley, and of course he asked about the guy I had chosen to play "him". "He's fantastic!" I said. "He actually plays it a lot like you, especially the chemistry between Johnny and Cheryl is a lot like the chemistry between us. But... he's like, a darker, more aggressive, sexually deviant version of you."

"Oh," Bentley said. "So he is playing me the way I think I am in my head."


Monday, March 16, 2009


The new Smalltimore trailer is on YouTube!

CONTEST: Feed a Starving Actor!!!

I was just about to rename the "Smalltimore the Movie" Facebook page, "Phil Calvert & Friends" as we have recently had a deluge of his friends become fans of the page, but I decided to take a count to be sure which actor had the most friends on here, and it turns out that Kyle Holtgren wins (for the moment) by a nose! The current tally is:

Kyle - 12
Phil C. - 11
Kelly Coston - 7
Cheryl Scungio - 4
Orlando Gonzalez - 4
Johnny Benson - 2
Al Letson - 2
Will Lurie - 1

So, as a little incentive, I decided to create a little contest.

Feed a Starving Actor!!!

Whichever actor of the main ensemble has the most number of friends on the "Smalltimore the Movie" page by midnight, May 6th, the eve of the Maryland Film Festival, (and NO, I do not know if we are in yet, but for good or evil, I'll be drinking that weekend) will be treated by me to a ridiculously decadent dinner at the PRIME RIB Restaurant. What's your pleasure? Oysters Rockefeller? Lobster Bisque? Or a steak from one of the top 20 steak houses in the entire COUNTRY? This is not a dinner for the faint of heart, folks.

If a person is friends with more than one of the actors, they will each receive credit. If you don't know one of the actors personally, just post to the page who you are "voting" for and I will add it to their tally. If you are already a fan but not a friend of an actor, you, too, can post your vote. ONE VOTE PER FAN if you are not friends with any of the actors. Watch the trailer to see who's who, and make your voice heard!

Cheryl Scungio as Gracie
Orlando Gonzalez as Tony
Joyce J. Scott as Mrs. Talford
Kelly Coston as Mel
Johnny Benson as Bentley
Darik Bernard as Darik
Will Lurie as Andrew
Phil Calvert as Thom
Tom Diventi as Tucker
Kyle Holtgren as David
Tiffany Ariany as Angela
Phil Amico as Jack
Al Letson as The Voice of Reason

So, do your good deed for the day and become a fan of the "Smalltimore, the Movie" Facebook page. I'll be posting an update every 7-10 days to let you know the stats.

Let them eat steak!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Importance of Focusing

(I took this photo in Koblenz, Germany, in 2002. This and other photos of mine can be seen in "Smalltimore". You can see more of my photos at I thought this site had been deleted a few years ago, but it is still up!)

Ugh, my eyes are crossing. Today I dug deeper into the glorious Without A Box website, looking into the details of about 150 festivals to see if "Smalltimore" would be suited to them. That may sound like a lot, and I have been working on it for about 4 hours now, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. I have thousands to go, literally.

I did find quite a few possibilities along with some tempting long shots. I am looking through them in the order that deadlines are coming up fastest. I think when I get through the first 300, then I'll stop and sort through the ones I have picked out as "maybes" and decide if I want to submit to them or not. The average submission fee is about $35 for earlybird, $50 or more for last minute, so it adds up fast. I've already submitted to 18 festivals to the tune of about $1000, so I am about tapped out and need to start becoming very selective.

I received a congratulatory email (about the Heart of England Film Festival) from my friend John Wood who lives in Germany. He used to live in Baltimore and was one of my closest friends here. He reminded me of one of our favorite moments together, in the context of, "who woulda thought it?", me becoming a filmmaker.

I think it was in the autumn of 1999 that I for some reason became very interested in photography. I had always taken lots of photos, but never with a manually operated camera. I wanted to learn how to do that, and how to develop and print my own photos, so I signed up for a weekend class at MICA. John loaned me his trusty old Minolta, and after receiving my first homework assignment, he spent an afternoon with me down at the harbor taking photos that played around with the depth of field. I had only ever operated a point-and-shoot camera before, with automatic focus.

We were on Light Street at Baltimore, and John stopped at the McDonald's to grab a burger. A block south of there, he unwrapped the burger and used a City Paper box as his table while I took a picture of him. I quickly pointed John's own camera at him and clicked the button, snap went the shutter. John asked, "Did you focus?" I replied, "I need to focus?"

I love that story.

Once he showed me how to focus, I actually took a very cool pic of him eating that burger. My instructor liked it a lot. I spent the next few years taking thousands of snaps, setting up my own darkroom in my kitchen, organizing solo exhibits and later group exhibits with some artist friends, and have sold many of the photos I took during that time, including the one above. It is one of my favorites, and John was also with me when I took this. It is titled, "The Wheels of Fortune." I was visiting John and his wife Anja while they lived in Trier, Germany, and we took a day trip to Koblenz. We saw these three little girls whose mother let them run around naked in a fountain on this hot summer day. They were so cute, and I loved the juxtaposition of this tiny, carefree girl and her tricycle with the wrinkled, scowling old man in his wheelchair.

Last year I sold all of my darkroom equipment in order to put that money towards the movie. I had lost my passion for developing photos (it is expensive and time-consuming) awhile before that, though I still love photography itself. So now I have a much more expensive and much more time-consuming passion! But at least with filmmaking, it is not me working alone in the dark. I enjoyed the solitude of that, but I am now enjoying the camaraderie and collaboration that is filmmaking.

One of the other big differences between photography and filmmaking is that photography is much more of an instant gratification; filmmaking is somewhat the exact opposite. I have always thought of myself as an instant-gratification kind of person. But here I am. I wrote the first draft of the script more than four years ago. I took a long break inbetween, but I have been working hard and continuously now for almost two years. And still have work to do.

The point is, you never know what you are capable of, but if you truly have a passion for it, as well as patience and perseverance, you will likely succeed. Filmmaking, like photography, is not brain surgery. It is something to be learned, and something with which you have to be using several different parts of your brain at the same time. And it is definitely something that if you don't love it, you're not going to do it well. It's just too much work to plow through if you are on the fence about it.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Take Heart

(I took the above photo at the dog track in Galway, Ireland, in 2002. Read on to find out what the hell it has to do with anything.)

I woke up to some exciting news today. "Smalltimore" has been accepted at its first festival, "The Heart of England Film Festival"! Currently it is scheduled to screen on June 8th, the first day of the festival, in Tamworth, UK.

This festival just launched last year, but it is already attracting actors such as Marcia Gay Harden and Keifer Sutherland, who are involved in projects that will be screening there this year. And no matter how big or small it is, hey, we can say we screened internationally!

Acceptance at this festival also guarantees us screening, if we choose, at several other international festivals in places such as Ireland, Thailand, and South Africa. I'll be researching these a little more extensively to see if they are suitable to us. I know that the one in Ireland is a new one that if you pay the submission fee, you are guaranteed to screen there, which can mean the process is rather watered down. But then again, if you have a good product, it can easily stand out in a festival like this. The other reason I might do that festival is because it is in Galway.

I took an extensive 2-week tour of Ireland in 2002 that included Galway and it was one of my favorite towns. It is small and pretty, a working town, on the water, and they have a dog track. Our tour guide, Terry, told us that if we wanted to do something non-touristy to go there, it was locals (who are all pretty much regulars) only. Terry told us that if we wanted to really know the ins and outs, to ask the youngest person we could find there, as a lot of boys in the town more or less grow up at the track. I went, by myself, and sure enough there were lots of young boys scampering around, walking with a confident bounce in their step, head tilted back with an air of authority, and interacting with the well-weathered gray-haired regulars with such familiarity I wouldn't be surprised if they all went out together for a pint afterwards. The odds boards, unlike the electronic and computerized boards at Pimlico or Laurel, were actual boards - CHALK boards - each held up by an older man who would change the odds by hand as the bets came in.

The track was well lived-in, the age showing on the facility as well as (some of) the patrons. I made a bet, something I had never done before (this was well before I got hooked on the ponies here in Baltimore). For dog races, if you don't know, there is an electric rabbit on the rail that the dogs are trained to chase. SLAM!!! The gates open, the greyhounds take off like slim bullets with fur, maniacally chasing something they can never hope to catch. This was very exciting to me, a very new and different experience. The dogs are unbelievably fast. The track is not as big as a horse track, of course, and there were no TV screens so you could see the dogs up close as they ran. But the track was small enough that you could still see them yourself when they were running on the opposite side. As they approached the final bend, even from where I stood I could see that the dogs were slowing down. When they came into full view as they rounded the corner, they seemed confused and started running into each other, crossing each other's paths. I had never seen a dog race before, but surely this can't be how they all go? The dogs further slowed down and now were just bumping into each other, looking around, when the race caller announced: "Sorry, the electric rabbit has broken. All bets are off, please turn in your tickets for a refund at the window!" I looked and sure enough, there was the rabbit, still sitting on the rail at his starting position.

So, things like that, that may be why I enter some festivals that may or may not do me that much good. You never know who you are going to meet or what kind of experiences you are going to have when you travel. Even bad experiences later make for good stories. Throw the movie at a film festival into the mix, and who knows what might happen? In Ireland, I'M the one with the sexy accent ;)

Friday, March 13, 2009

T.T. Tucker, a.k.a. Tom Diventi, as Himself

This weekend is jam-packed with music, so what better time to profile my dear friend T.T. Tucker?

I am not sure when I first met Tucker. It was at least 10 years ago, and I am sure a good bit of alcohol was involved. I probably met him through Thom Hickling, or it may have been the other way around. Or it may have been through Anne Fulweiler at Baltimore Theater Project. It's a mystery.

I have always known him as Tucker, and that is what he likes to go by, but as more people hear about, "Smalltimore," and see the trailer, I have had more than one person say, "Tom Diventi?! I know that guy!!!" Said people are often musicians, late forties to early fifties, and won't give me much more information than some sort of vague, "it was 'back in the day'," kind of answer. It is probably better to not know the details, so I don't press the issue.

Again, don't really remember how it came about (and this was only 10 years ago, not 30, so maybe those people aren't being as purposely elusive with the details as I sometimes think they are), but I hired Tucker and his band, the Bum Rush Band, to play at my second annual holiday party. The 10th and final one was in December 2007, when I announced I would be making this movie, which was nearly precisely the moment when my previous life-as-I-had-known-it vaporized. The place where I work my day job and had that party is a very ornate Victorian mansion in Mount Vernon. Tall gilt mirrors over marble fireplace mantles, a Knabe square grand piano that is likely older than the house itself, one of the most beautiful chandeliers I have ever seen, decoupage on the ceilings, each room has a different pattern AND different border pattern in the parquet floors... you get the idea... and every guest dressed as if they are going to the Baltimore version of Oscar night...

Enter T.T.Tucker & the Bum Rush Band.

I have a magnet on my refrigerator which holds up a photograph of my parents. It says, "The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed."

T.T.Tucker plays an upscale party in a turn-of-the-century mansion. This ought to be interesting.

It was awesome, so awesome that Tucker & the boys played every holiday party of mine thereafter. The first year of the party, in 1998, I had a more conservative, soft rock sort of band. They were lovely, but I don't think a single person danced. Tucker arrived year two, and played the final 9 of 10 parties. What was so great about this seeming miss-match of performer and venue is that to me, it represented all things Baltimore. Like most people, my friends and acquaintances love to dress to the nines, sip champagne over great food and conversation... generally speaking, who doesn't like to play grown-up? And how many times a year do you actually get to do so? But the beauty, the REAL beauty of being a grown-up is never having to hear, "while you're under my roof..." again, because now it is YOUR roof. And under my roof, the rule is, you gotta have a good time.

So, being a grown-up, I can have ice cream for breakfast. Stay up late. Skip the lima beans. And hire a cow-punk/southern rock/rockabilly/whatever you want to call them , loud, fun band for my hoity-toity holiday party! And it worked! It really worked. I think having Tucker and the guys play kept the party legitimately Baltimore. Here are a whole bunch of people who don't spend a lot of time in high heels or suit jackets. I think if I had a string trio playing chamber music, we would all have felt like imposters. But instead, having Tucker there I feel made everyone relax, have fun, and be able to be themselves. Some years Tucker would dress up, too. Some years he'd show up with his signature jeans jacket with the sleeves cut off. It didn't matter to me. T.T.Tucker and the Bum Rush Band made my now-legendary parties just that. They wouldn't have been the same without him.

Tucker's role in "Smalltimore," is not huge, but he is so perfectly himself in it. He ad-libbed more than any other actor in the film, and I let him, because he was always natural and always funny. He and the Bum Rush boys - Jamie Wilson, Wayne Werner, Craig Hopwood, and Stevie Cecil - were so helpful and cooperative in helping Phil Calvert to get a grasp on the role of Thom, which was based loosely on their deceased bandmate, Thom Hickling. Tucker and the guys told Phil loads of stories about Thom, practiced songs with him on their own time before we started production, and even let him sit in on a live gig at the Cat's Eye Pub. I know that working through this story with a make-believe Thom had to have been a bit tough for Tucker. It was tough for me, but Thom was Tucker's best friend. He never complained about that, though, even when I asked. He keeps those things to himself. Though you might hear it in a song of his.

Tucker & the guys are featured performing songs in Smalltimore such as "How Did We Survive," "That Was Then/This is Now," and "Garden of Stone," as well as contributing several other songs as background music. They did me the huge favor of recording two songs that I wanted specifically for the movie - "America is One Tough Town," which, when Tucker first wrote and started playing that at gigs, replaced "That Was Then/This Is Now" as my favorite T.T.Tucker song. You can also hear it on the trailer (click on top video at the right). As a matter of fact, you can hear "That Was Then" on the original teaser, which is the video on the bottom right.

The other song they recorded for me is, "The Other Side", a song that Tucker wrote for Thom after Thom died in December 2005. The day after Thom died I went out of town and was gone for almost a month, so I missed 2 of the 3 memorial gatherings that different groups of Thom's friends and co-workers had for him. Tucker and the band played these parties, and played this song at one or both of them. I was back in time for the final party, but by then Tucker decided they couldn't play that song live anymore, it was just too sad and would bring the house down, not in a good way, and it was just too much for Tucker and the guys personally. So I have never, ever heard that song performed live, and I doubt I ever will. But "Smalltimore" is dedicated to Thom, and I really wanted it for the soundtrack. Again without complaint, Tucker and the guys worked hard to get the song done in time for me to edit it into the film in time for the December 27th (third anniversary of Thom's death) screening of the rough cut of the movie. I know it was a sacrifice of time for all of them, and just plain not an easy thing to do, emotionally. Words can't express my appreciation to Tucker, Jamie, Craig, Stevie and Wayne for doing that. It is a beautiful song, and it breaks my heart every time.

But on to happier things. T.T.Tucker & the Bum Rush Band are playing at the Cat's Eye Pub in Fells Point this Sunday night, March 15th. I'll be there, so come on down and say hi, have a Natty Bo, throw a few dollars in the tip bucket! They are there the third Sunday of every month. Click on their link under the "Partners in Crime" section on the right to view their web page and link to their songs. Whether you know him as T.T.Tucker or as Tom Diventi, there is no denying that he is a piece of work, and a piece of work that can play the hell out of a song.

p.s. Also on the musical menu this weekend, Jen Swartout plays tonight at 9:00pm El Rancho Grande in Hampden; Lawnchair (with drummer Jimmy Brink) plays tonight at 10:00pm at the Waterfront Hotel in Fells Point; I may make it to one or both of those, after attending the Shorts Screening at the Creative Alliance. And, The Remnants also play tonight at Armadillo's in Annapolis. Click on their links to the right, pick your pleasure and go out and have a good time tonight! Also keep your eyes peeled for performances by Reina Williams and Lazerbitch, they have each had several performances pop up lately at places such as Joe Squared.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I Do

(picture: Orlando Gonzalez, Joyce Scott, and Cheryl Scungio share an unscripted laugh during our grueling week of rehearsals. See #7 below.)

Tom Boynton of The Remnants came over last night and watched the movie straight through with me. We are talking about him possibly scoring some of the scenes that have no music or would do better with non-lyrical music. The sound still needs a lot of work, and it is driving me crazy. At least it is leveled off now so that I don't have to watch it with remote control in hand to turn it up or down, but in many scenes I seem to have overcompensated and now the music is too low. It is different watching it on a television from the other side of the room than on a computer in front of my face. The sound is perfect there!

Dinner with Phil Calvert tonight, yay! Now I have to remember the things that I did right that I wanted to tell him about. I had a few more things for the list of what NOT to do, but I didn't write them down and now I don't remember. They will probably come to me as I write this. Oh, there's one!

1. Carefully plan your shoot according to the seasons. Since "Smalltimore" is a romantic comedy, I wanted bright, colorful outdoor scenes. We shot for 2 weeks in August, and the weather was amazingly cooperative. However, there were some scenes we didn't get to, and as I mentioned, it took me 4 months to get those actors I needed all together for those scenes - several of which were outdoors. So for the day scenes we had to make sure we didn't shoot any trees, because now they were bare, and for the night scenes my poor actors were freezing because they had to be in summer clothes with no coats. And one of the scenes was driving around with the convertible top down! So if I were shooting a comedy, in Baltimore, I would try to start production in April or May. For something that needed to be more bleak, maybe end of October.

I'm sure more things will come to me, but let's move on to what I did that I WOULD do again:

1. Join the Creative Alliance and take every film-related class you can. I'll remind you that I had NO formal training in filmmaking. Before January 2008 I had never taken a single class on the subject. I took as many classes at the Creative Alliance as I could before going into production, and I still continue to take them, they can only make me a better writer, director, and producer. Especially if you see any class taught by Michelle Farrell, Rob Pawlosky, or Steve Yeager, TAKE IT. Also Aaron Gentzler or Stacie Jones-Gentzler. I haven't had the opportunity to take their classes, but I know them and they do a great job.

2. Make contacts and keep them up constantly. The film community in Baltimore is very small, so this isn't that hard to do. Actors, producers, crew... you never know when you are going to need someone. Be respectful and even when you really want to and you know you are right, NEVER talk badly about anyone in the industry. Everyone knows everyone, you will probably have to work with them sooner or later, and it will come back to bite you in the ass. Last summer, I think before we even started production, something bad (and COMPLETELY untrue) got back to me that someone said about me, and I was barely in these circles for a minute! Luckily the person who heard this misinformation knew the truth about the situation first-hand and straightened out the third party - who I had never even met, but I had heard of him because he has produced several movies.

3. Treat actors with the same respect you treat the film crew. As a general rule, in life, I try to treat everyone the same anyway. A lot of people on the production side of things tried to convince me that actors are a dime a dozen and should be glad to take any part I threw their way, do it for free and like it. I thought this was a terrible approach, and I would never even think about an actor that way, let alone treat them like that. What good would that do anyone? That kind of attitude just breeds discontent, poison on a set. On the flip side, I have been on a set where the Director actually said to the production crew that the actor, "is God." That attitude is equally disastrous.

4. If possible, hold your auditions someplace that has a professional feel about it. I was lucky enough to be able to hold mine at Baltimore Theater Project. This, I feel, gave the project some "cred," and got the actors more excited about trying to do their best and land a role.

5. The audition process should be pretty grueling. This is not to intentionally torture anyone, this is to weed out those who aren't serious about it. Tape all auditions. Review them several times (it should be grueling for the director also, not just the actors!). Call more than one person back for each role, even if you THINK you know who you want. The second round of auditions should be extensive and tough. See who's left standing, those are the people you want.

6. Have a table read, and allow the actors some input. This is something that only made sense to me, but I found out that very few writer/directors do this. Of course I had the final say, and there were some suggestions I turned down. But for example, this process is what led to Joyce Scott completely turning the character of Mrs. Talford around. As it was originally written, she was pretty crude. Joyce helped me to find a way, simply through vocabulary, really, to make her much more endearing, intelligent, and quirky. Having this sort of input also allows the actors to really OWN their characters. It means a lot to them to be a part of the process, because they are very rarely asked their opinions. Honestly this is one of the best things I did in the whole process, and I will do it every time. The other thing that I would not skip, that many do is:

7. Have rehearsals. Since actors in low-budget indies are often doing it for cheap or free, this may seem like a lot to ask. But I believe it is exactly why the chemistry between the characters in "Smalltimore," truly comes across on screen. Because we had this time together to become at ease with each other, and work out the kinks of what I was looking for from each of them in every scene, in every page. Especially with an ensemble cast, there was so much going on. I think the whole thing would have been a holy mess if we had not put the time in together in the trenches (40 hours total) before stepping on the set.

8. Be up-front with actors from the moment you place the casting call. If you can't pay them, say so. There are still loads of actors out there who will do it, and the ones who won't will just be pissed off that you wasted their time, and they will spread the word. Have a questionnaire at the auditions, and make sure everything is clear between you and that actor before the audition is over. Will they work for what you said you can (or can't) pay them? Will they do nudity? Have a problem with playing a gay character? Have reliable transportation? Even simple questions can help you suss out the divas who are going to be a problem on the set. If they answer every question with two or three sentences instead of checking the "yes" or "no" box, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

There's loads more, but I have to get some other work done today, so time to wrap this up. If you want to know more about my personal do's and don't's... take my pre-production class at the Creative Alliance on June 6th!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


(The above pic was taken between takes at the Wind-Up Space. I can't prove it, but I think Cheryl Scungio is flipping off my brother.)

All of a sudden I'm swamped again. I got the DVD out the door to three more festivals today, including the Indie Film Jam in Florida. They weren't looking for feature lengths, only shorts and music videos. But because "Smalltimore" has 37 original songs by 11 Baltimore artists, I thought they might be interested in it and wrote to them. I received a quick reply back that they would take a look at it, and best of all I did not have to pay a submission fee!

Tomorrow night I am meeting with Tom Boynton, singer/songwriter/self-proclaimed Benevolent Dictator of The Remnants (who have a slew of songs on the soundtrack) to see if he can come up with some scoring for some scenes that do not yet have music. Thursday night I am having dinner with Phil Calvert, who played Thom, and Friday I am helping out at a membership drive/shorts fest at the Creative Alliance, so come on down for that!

Dinner with Phil gives me an excuse tonight to procrastinate just a little bit more about cleaning my apartment. The purpose of meeting up, aside from being friends and we do that once in awhile, is that Phil is considering his own leap into the realm of writer/producer/director and wants to pick my brain a bit. I will first off say to anyone in the same position, this is a great idea: take me out to dinner! Kidding... kind of. Actually, that is exactly what I did, and still do, and it is a great way to get a boatload of information. You meet someone, or know someone, who has done some work that you like, or even work that you don't. As long as they have more experience than you do - take them out for a meal. Occasionally this is met with some resistance, people are busy, or married, or both. To them I have said, "Look, you gotta eat sometime. You get a free meal and you get to talk about yourself the whole time, what's not to love?" No one has gotten out of it once I put it to them that way :) And there is nothing slick or underhanded about it, it is the absolute truth: you have knowledge, I want it, out of respect I will gladly reimburse you for your time with a meal. If you spend $20-$50 on that person for a meal spread out over 2 hours or so, it is less money than you will often pay for a class where you share the teacher with 10 or more other people. You have one-on-one time with that person, you get to get as specific as you like and skip over things you don't want to get into, and in the end, you will most likely have made a friend to boot.

Phil is my friend and I want him to succeed, so I take the matter quite seriously and want to give him some good information. His general question to me, in addition to where to even start, is "What would you do differently?" That is a very good question, and one you should ask every filmmaker that you can before making a film yourself.

Off the top of my head:

1. Hire/assign an Assistant Director. I think the AD has the single most confusing title of anyone on set. It sounds like they are also directing the actors, which is not the case at all, or at least it shouldn't be. The AD is the person who locks (quiets) the set down, makes sure actors are in wardrobe and make-up, meals are served on time, lights a fire under the Director of Photography and the crew to keep things on schedule. In short, if this person is doing their job well, they will likely be the least popular person on the set. So make sure you hire/assign the position of AD to someone who really doesn't give a shit if people like them or not. I didn't know this was what an AD did, and I tried to do it all myself. DON'T do that. It makes for VERY stressful days, and though it is likely if you are the Director you still won't be the most popular person on set, you definitely don't want to be the least popular person on set. Get someone else to do the dirty work for you.

2. Have a shot list. This wasn't anything I had ever even heard of before we got on set. It would have taken a lot of time in pre-production to complete, but it would have come in very handy during production. A list of every shot needed to be able to edit your scenes seamlessly: wide shots, medium, tight, dolly, jib, miscellaneous moving shots, and something I did not know the value of until I started editing : CUTAWAYS. Those are the little inserts you see, a pan of liquor bottles at the bar, closeup of someone flipping pages in a magazine, wine being poured into a glass, food being cooked in a skillet. I would suggest you ALWAYS factor in 2-3 cutaways per scene, they can save your life. They are the little band-aids that you can use to piece scenes together when an actor flubs a line or the camera gets bumped during an otherwise flawless scene.

The other reason to have a shot list is that it can not only save you time, but also money. You're on a very tight budget but you have access to a jib and dolly? Those things take time to set up, you can't use them for every shot. Plan out exactly the scenes you will use them in, so that the really sweet shots are spread out within the movie. Because of course, you shoot the script completely out of order, it makes it important to plan this out. If you are deciding on the fly when to use the jib, you might only use it every third day - and then when you sit down to edit it, you realize all your pretty shots take place in the first ten minutes of the movie and the rest is bland!

3. If you have to skimp, skimp on the wide (master) shots. I spent too much time on these and my coverage (single shots of actors) suffered for it because we would run out of time. When you edit, you only really start off with the wide shot, then you move in for coverage and rarely go back to the wide, unless there is some big action going on. Knowing what I know now, I would in the future try to get the wide done in three, and absolutely no more than four, takes. Many days I was doing 7 or 8, and I had some long scenes.

4. Schedule realistically. 5 to 7 pages a day is realistic. Most days I had scheduled 8 to 10 pages. Sometimes we made it, sometimes we didn't, and I had to add several pick-up days. Once you factored in my pick-up days, where we were only shooting 2-3 pages, we still averaged out at about 7 pages a day, which is good. But it would have been better to have a steady pace of 5-7 pages a day spread out over 3 weeks than 8-10 per day over two, and then have to come back several months later when everyone's schedule finally gelled again to pick up those last 10 pages spread out over 4 days. People lose weight, change their hair, shave their beards, move away, get jobs...

That being said, pick-up days are normal, and no matter how well you plan, you are probably still going to have to do a couple of them. So factor that into your schedule and budget as well. It will help your actors and crew to keep up a good pace if they know that if they don't get everything done on time, they have to come back the weekend after next.

5. Always, always have your "cans" (earphones, or earbuds). I was pretty good about asking for this and Danny, who did sound, was pretty good about making sure I had them. But sometimes we were in a hurry, or outside, and I didn't have them. And guess what? Those are the scenes I had to ADR. Sean swears by wireless lav mikes (the kind you can clip or hide in clothing, lapel mikes). I haven't tried them yet, but rest assured I will next time around. If you don't have access to them and you know you are going to be shooting somewhere where the sound is going to be horrible, factor in time THAT day to record the ADR, so you don't have to ask the actors to come in later to do it.

I know there's more, but those are the big ones that I found myself lamenting, "Why didn't I just...(fill in blank)!" Most other things sorted themselves out and/or I was well prepared for. Next posting I'll give you a list of things I did right, things that not everyone does but that I would highly recommend, and that I will always do in the future because they saved my butt. I could keep going, but I know my postings have been of epic proportions lately and I'd like to keep your attention. It (long postings) means that I need to get back to writing-writing. By the end of April I plan to have the movie completely finished, no more tweaking, and then get to work on the next script. I have some ideas and several people on board already, but can't do a thing until I have the script!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Class Action

I finally figured out how to make screen grabs (stills from the movie), so now I can give you a picture with every posting. This one above was actually from a camera test when Michelle was fooling around (that's her on the bench, as "Crackhead #1"), it wasn't supposed to be in the movie. But it is my movie and it makes me laugh every time I see it! And it makes Michelle rolls her eyes every time she sees it. Which also makes me laugh. Every time.

Anyway, I have awesome news! No, haven't heard back from any film festivals yet, calm down. Actually, the news might not be as awesome to you as it is to me, but I am personally very, very, very stoked. I will be teaching my first class at the Creative Alliance on July 6th! A one-day seminar on pre-production for indie films.

Michelle has taught a bunch of different classes there in the past, actually she is just wrapping one up right now, so she will probably find my enthusiasm amusing, as it is old hat to her. But I don't care! I get to talk about something I love for 5 hours straight, and get paid for it!

I have learned so much, a lot of it through trial and error, and I can't wait to share it with people who also hope to manifest their ideas for movies into reality. One of the things I love most about traveling within circles of creative people is the opportunity to watch an idea sprout from nothing, a tiny seed of an idea, into full-scale productions, whatever that might be - a movie, a play, a song, a painting. It is simply magical. And this class will give me the opportunity to meet even more people like that.

I have been so lucky to have met some fantastic people by taking their classes at the Creative Alliance. First and foremost, of course, Michelle, but also Steve Yeager (Acting for the Camera) and Rob Pawlosky ( Screenwriting Basics), among others. And through chance and happenstance, gotten to know other people along the way who have been invaluable to "Smalltimore," names you have already heard a hundred times or more, like Sean Stanley, Eric Thornett, and Charlie Anderson. All of these people have been so generous and honest with their advice, it always amazed me, and at the same time it always kind of made me wonder, "Why are they being so nice to me? Why are they giving me so much of their time?" There have been times I felt guilty about pestering them for advice or assistance, but they never really seemed to mind. And now I better understand why.

They must have had people like themselves helping them when they were as green as I was when I met them. It is an opportunity to give back, and pay it forward. And you get to talk about something you love doing, with people who want to do it themselves someday. If champagne were thrown into the mix, it would be the perfect day. I tried sneaking bubbly into the class format, but they put the kibosh on that.

(BTW, if you are interested in taking the class yourself, the new schedule should be out around the first week of April. You can register online at And OF COURSE I will be reminding you about this when the time comes!)

Anyway, the blurb and itinerary for the class goes a little something like this:

Workshop blurb: There are a lot of universal truths about movie-making. One of them is, for every dime and minute you don't spend on pre-production, you will spend ten times that during production. Another is, movie-making is a ton of work, but it is not brain surgery. Save thousands of dollars (and countless headaches) by learning how to be well-prepared before ever stepping foot on the set. Jeanie Clark, founder of Steel Corset Productions and writer/director/producer of the new romantic comedy, "Smalltimore," walks you step by step through the basics, including:
- How to be open to and receive reliable critique on your script.
- The re-writing process
- Factoring in production value
- Creating an LLC
- Funding
- Networking
- Dealing with actors: auditions, call backs, contracts, rehearsals, scheduling
- Crew & gear, your biggest expense: finding a crew to suit your needs without overspending.
- Building your Production Team
- Location management
- Insurance & permits
- Breaking down the shooting schedule
- Generating buzz for your project
- Craft services
- and generally preparing to expect the unexpected.

It is a LOT to cover in one day, but I am pretty organized when it comes to stuff like this, and a lot of it is much simpler than you might expect. You probably already know this, since you are used to my writing style by now, but I wrote the introductory blurb. I wasn't sure they were going to let me keep that bit in about filmmaking not being brain surgery, but I am glad they did. I mean no disrespect towards filmmakers - it IS a lot of work. But when you break it down into the individual tasks and components, other than the actual camera work, there is no reason a person who is creative, intelligent, organized, disciplined, hard-working, honest with themselves and others, and a good leader cannot make a film. Those are the components it takes, and it does take all of them.

Some of them, you either are or you aren't and there is not much you can do about it if you aren't - like being creative, or intelligent. There is a line in "Smalltimore" that Joyce Scott delivers as Mrs. Talford,

"No one ever used to be an artist! Any more than one can aspire to be an ar-teest! You are either an artist or you are NOT."

I didn't think that much about that line when I wrote it, I was just writing from the heart, thinking how I might talk 20 or 30 years from now to a younger version of myself. And I didn't know when I wrote that line that Joyce Scott would be the one delivering it. She never said anything about it to me, so I could be wrong, but I think that is the line that may have helped her make the decision to do the film. I remember there was just something about the way she said that line at the table read that made me think, she knows that I really get that, and I know that she does, and she wants to say that line.

I digress... but that is the truth. That doesn't mean that someone who is not creative can't have a large hand in making a movie. It just means they need to get the right people to collaborate with them on the project. Even a person who has ALL of those qualities can't do it alone, so you shouldn't be afraid of the collaboration thing.

Some of the other qualities I mentioned... well, you might have them and not even know you have them. In my case, I think of, "organized, disciplined, and hard-working," specifically. At the beginning of this holy mess, I never thought in a million years that I could produce a film. Write, yes. Direct, possibly. Produce? No thanks.

I overheard Sean once say he was going to print up a T-shirt that just said, "Producing is HARD." And it is. And I didn't think I'd like it, and it is excruciating for me to try to do things I don't like, let alone be any good at them. Producing is doing a million little crappy details like setting up the LLC, bank account, locking down locations, breaking down schedules, and all the stuff mentioned in the above bullet points. I did NOT want to do all that crap! I thought if it came down to me having to do all that crap, this movie would never get made.

But in the end, on the budget I was working with, I could not in good conscience pay someone to do things I was perfectly capable of doing myself, but just didn't want to. And it all turned out just fine. I gave myself a solid six months or so of pre-production time, as I was doing almost everything myself. The next time around I will probably get a small team of people together, but I am very glad I did it all myself the first time, because now I know how to do it. I wasn't super-disciplined, in that I did the things I wanted to do first, and put off the things I didn't want to do until I had no choice but to do them. But if you look back through my blog postings at that time (from the beginning of up until production started August 1, 2008) you will see that I just chugged steadily along, and was just happy with myself as long as I accomplished one or two little tasks every day that needed to be completed for the movie. I really surprised myself, because not only did I do it, but I actually enjoyed doing it. Sometimes the little task of the day was as simple as posting a blog entry. That might not seem very important, but think about it - I know you are going to go see my movie, aren't you?

Phil Calvert, as Thom

I have both been looking forward to profiling Phil Calvert in his role as Thom, and dreading it, as I know that at some point while I am writing this I am likely going to cry. It is pretty much a given, actually.

That is because Phil plays Thom, a character who is loosely based on my dear deceased friend Thom Hickling. If you go waaaaayyyy back to the beginning of this blog, back when it was, you'll get a longer version of the story. (you can also read more about the real Thom at I will try to abbreviate it here, because this posting should be about Phil, not Thom. But it is impossible to talk about one without explaining about the other.

Reader's Digest Condensed Version: I wrote the first version of this screenplay in one month, in December of 2004. I didn't do anything with it for a year. One of the characters I had based on my friend Thom, but I never told him about it. A year later, Thom said something to me that sparked me to start rewriting the script. Less than two weeks later, he was killed in a car accident. My (and many other people's) heart was ripped out. I couldn't touch the script. It hurt too much. I could never have imagined anyone other than Thom playing Thom. The following summer, I met someone who had a familiar, mischievous twinkle in his eye, a unique speaking voice, an easy and perpetual smile, and a way of making a person feel like they were the only one in the room. I don't think I have ever dropped that person's name in this blog, but I will finally do so - that person was the actor Bill Pullman (yea, the guy who played the President in Independence Day, among many, many other films). He was staying at my hotel for 3 weeks that summer while workshopping a play he wrote called, "Expedition 6," at Baltimore Theater Project.

It took awhile for it to dawn on me that Thom is the person that Bill reminded me of, but once I made that realization, lo and behold, I was able to write again, without being terribly sad. Well, at least not all the time. Bill is a great person, funny, kind, down-to-earth, thoughtful. While he was here, he nicknamed me Jeanie-us (genius), I think because I introduced him to the cocktail known as an Ice Pick (thank you, Elizabeth, for introducing ME to it!) on a very hot summer day at a crab feast we had with the cast. I was hoping the nickname would stick, but alas, no one else picked up on it.

Anyway, Bill's company finished their workshop and drifted back out of Baltimore, but by now I was off and running. Though I doubted it would ever happen, now I could picture Bill playing the role of Thom and I could write again, with a smile.

Somewhere along the line, maybe it was last March when Phil and I took Michelle Farrell's filmmaking class at the Creative Alliance, I thought of my friend Phil in this role. I had no idea that Phil was interested in filmmaking before he ended up in this class with me. We had been friends for a few years before this, but not real tight, just kind of see-you-when-I-see-you kind of friends. We had a great time at Michelle's class and hung out together outside of class more often. I always liked Phil, he is a sweetheart, and the more I got to know him, the more that he, too, reminded me of Thom.

I'll tell you a few things about Phil as a person, and you can pretty much add on, "just like Thom," to the end of each sentence. Phil has a heart of gold, and is a real live-and-let-live kinda guy. He's funny, and a gentleman. He likes a good party and a good time. And, bonus, he plays guitar!

What Phil did not have is a lot of acting experience, and that was a concern of mine. I made him audition, like everyone else. I made everyone audition, even the people I thought I wanted. I made no assumptions.

He did just fine. Though there were other actors that may have been better actors, there just honestly wasn't another actor in the auditions that was a better Thom. I knew I was biased, I knew it was a risk, but I also knew I could trust Phil to work very hard, and I also had to believe that I would be able to bring out the Thom in him, which would not be a stretch. I had to trust that the chemistry that really exists between me and Phil, like the chemistry that actually existed between me and Thom, would translate onscreen into the chemistry between Thom and Gracie... whoever ended up playing Gracie.

Gracie, of course, ended up being played by Cheryl Scungio, and Cheryl has chemistry with everyone, so that really helped. Phil is definitely at his best in his scenes with Cheryl. I think he trusted her lead and they were very comfortable with each other.

Thom in real life was Tucker's best friend and a member of Tucker's band. So I assigned Phil extensive homework, to drink with Tucker and play with the band as much as possible before we went into production. Phil is a professional and took his research assignment very seriously indeed.

Another concern I had was having a friend on set, and I had a few. Phil, Tucker of course, and also Kyle, who played David, though at the time Kyle and I were more casual friends. But Phil never took advantage of our friendship on the set, always came super-prepared, on time, good attitude, and ready to work. Now that I think about it, I believe that Phil had less acting experience than anyone on the set, but he had a pretty substantial role with many lines, and dramatic as well as comedic scenes. He did well in both. As a matter of fact, every time I have shown anyone the film in its entirety, there is a scene where Thom (Phil) is speaking to Andrew (Will Lurie), and Phil's delivery of his lines in this scene consistently gets more laughs than any other scene in the movie.

I know that deep down Phil was nervous a lot of the time, and I have to hand it to him for overcoming that. When all was said and done, we were out one night having drinks at the watering hole where we first met, Kisling's at Chester & Fleet streets. Phil raised a beer and told me, "You know what, Jeanie? I have done some pretty amazing things in my life. Lived overseas, flew in planes that only a handful of people have ever set foot in (Phil is ex-Air Force and currently works for Lockheed Martin). But making that movie was definitely in the top ten coolest things I have ever done. Thank you."

How funny... I am tearing up now, and not for the reason I thought I would before completing this post. I mean, Wow. What do you say to that? It made me very happy to hear that, it meant a lot to me, and I will never forget it. It made me very proud of Phil, because I know he really pushed his own limits and stepped far, far out of his comfort zone.

Having gone through the wringer that is making a feature-length film, I am glad to know that Phil is even more interested in filmmaking than ever, particularly in directing, I think, but still acting as well. One great advantage that Phil has is that he has a great look. He can be the sweet-but-strong teddy bear of a friend that he is in "Smalltimore," but in a flash his sparkly, smiling blue eyes can turn to ice and suddenly he is a scary, large, craggy-skulled serial killer-type.

The character of Thom, though his scenes did involve drama as well as comedy, did not have a broad range. But I believe Phil does, and I am really hoping to be the one to bring that out of him. We've talked briefly about another film idea I have that I would like to make happen with him, in a much more demanding role that would truly test his mettle. We'll see.

And to answer a question you probably were asking closer to the beginning of this posting... yes, I did indeed ask Bill Pullman if he would consider playing the role of Thom. He turned me down so sweetly and gently that I practically thanked him for doing so, and much later, I actually did thank him for doing so, more or less. We have kept in sporadic touch, I don't like to bother him much, but he did ask me to keep him apprised of my progress and I was and am happy to do so. A few months ago, while I was editing leading up to the screening of the rough cut, I sent Bill a brief status report. At the end of the note, I told him that in a way I was glad he did not agree to do the part, because if the movie does go anywhere, I would always be left to wonder if it was because the film was good, or because it had Bill Pullman in it. He kindly replied with a few sentences, saying he agreed and it was likely better not to have sort of skewed how the movie is received by putting a known actor in it. He also said he was proud of me.

So in closing this posting, I'd like to thank Bill for his support, express my extreme gratitude to Phil for the enormous amount of hard work he put into the role, and to thank the person who is ultimately responsible for allowing me to better know each of these wonderful men. As it is said in the ending credit of, "Smalltimore," this is... fade in...

for Thom

...fade out.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Festivus for the Restofus

Hey gang, I am SO sorry I have been a totally lame blogger lately, but I have been super-concentrated on editing, as I had some big deadlines coming up. I was working 4, 6, 8 or more hours a day on editing, mostly sound. I would get through the whole movie, painstakingly going practically frame-by-frame (there are 24 frames per second. That is PER. SECOND.), would review it again whole scene at a time before moving on to the next scene, then when done watch the whole thing straight through, and then think, "I can't believe I thought that sounded good!" and would start the whole thing all over again. The hardest part about pre-production was breaking down the shooting schedule. The hardest thing about post-production is DEFINITELY editing sound.

Istarted editing yesterday at about 3:45pm and stopped about 5:30am this morning, slept for three hours while the movie burned to DVD, then spent the next couple hours watching the whole thing straight through to make sure it burned without any glitches and then burning a few more copies I needed to send out in the mail to be postmarked by today. THEN had to scrape several inches of snow and ice off my car before I could get to the post office.

Also spent 7 hours with Michelle and several of my actors one day last week recording ADR for some scenes that the dialogue and/or sound was terrible in. ADR, as you probably already know, stands for Automatic Dialogue Replacement. That is an oxymoron of epic proportions. There is NOTHING automatic about it.

Though it really isn't as hard as I thought it would be. And I even did some Foley stuff. Foley, as you also probably know, is little sound effects you might have to add in. Like, a cell phone ringing, a door slamming off-camera, a beer keg sputtering. Some of that is easy, like just recording a cell phone ringing. Some of it is harder, like shaking up a bottle of soda before opening it to make it sound like a sputtering keg. The hard part was keeping Michelle from talking while recording the sputtering.

The hard part is the layering of sound, which I have mentioned before. Conversation ver roomtone over music over barroom chatter... it is exhausting trying to figure out what levels sound somewhat natural but still allow the viewer to focus on the dialogue.

A lot of you have been following this blog for a long time, some even from the very beginning, over a year ago, and I am really hoping it will pay off for you soon. And by that, I mean, pay off for me :) About a month from now, I should start hearing from the festivals I have been submitting to, yay or nay. And I'm not going to sugarcoat it for you. You'll here about the ones Smalltimore does not get into as well as the ones it (knock on wood) does. Probably some of these results will result in stories of money wasted, either on long shots or in festivals that let Smalltimore in but are far more po'dunk than they tout themselves to be and don't do me any good at all. But the whole purpose of this blog is to give you the behind the scenes of how it does (or doesn't) all work. Who knows? I may have just spent the last 18+ months of my life and thousands of my own and other people's dollars on something that will never bear fruit. But, honestly, I don't think so. There are so many things, adventures, crusades that I have been on or in in my life that I have put a fraction of the time, effort, blood, sweat, tears, etc, into and in them have experienced moderate to great success. Making this movie blows anything I have ever done absolutely away. I have never worked so hard or so long at anything, and have never loved working so much. I know that what I have gotten out of this experience already is invaluable, and could never be replaced any more than it can be described. There is no way that all that was for naught. But send your good energy my way regardless!!!