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“We tend to overestimate what we can do in one year, and underestimate what we can do in ten.”
Richard Foster
(Quote often attributed to Bill Gates, but I believe Foster wrote the line years before Gates wrote or said it.)

Screenwriter Dana Fox was 2 for 2 when she followed her career trajectory question to Rob McElhenny on Scriptnotes episode #299 with a question to writer/director Rian Johnson about his career trajectory that led to writing and directing Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

“I was never good or smart enough to get industry work before I made my first movie. I basically wrote Brick right out of college and essentially tried to get it made through my 20s. I didn’t make it until I was 30, but the whole time I was trying and kept almost getting there and it kept falling apart. But I was working some really wonderful jobs like I worked at a preschool for deaf kids for a while, I worked at the Disney channel producing promos for like Bear in the Big Blue House—really good jobs but nothing that was like I was making money doing what my sights are set on. So when I started doing it it was starting with this really personal thing and then I was very, very lucky and able to just kind of keep doing it.”
Writer/director Rian Johnson

It’s also worth pointing out that Johnson graduated from USC film school (same school Star Wars creator George Lucas attended) where he made short films, and continued to make short films after school. When he finally got Brick made for $500,000 it won the   the Special Jury Prize (For originality of vision) at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, and won Best First Film at the Austin Film Festival in 2007. He then followed that success with The Brothers Bloom (2008), Looper (2012), and directed the  Ozymandias (2013) episode of Breaking Bad, before given the Star War reins. A good example of being persistent and building on small successes that brought him to the intergalactic stage.

Scott W. Smith

 

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“Locations can be another character in a movie, and St. Petersburg was a character in ours.”
Cocoon producer Lili Zanuck

Ron Howard in St. Petersburg scouting locations for “Cocoon” in the early 80s

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Old postcard of The St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club

When Ron Howard was directing the movie Cocoon back in 1984-85 he called St. Petersburg, Florida “Burbank by the sea.” It wasn’t a slam. Howard, who grew up in Burbank, was just noticing the similarities between the two cities.

In 1984-85 I was living in Burbank, California and looking back it was a sweet time in my life. I had chosen Burbank because it was normal in terms of Southern California. Yet on my way to school I could pass Disney, Warner Brothers, and Universal Studios.

And at the NBC Studios in Burbank was where Johnny Carson taped The Tonight Show and enjoyed making occasional pokes at “Beautiful downtown Burbank.” Both Burbank and St. Petersburg at that time were a bit dated. In ’84-’85, Burbank didn’t even have movie theater.  (But I will add that today, both cities have been transformed into pretty trendy places.)

They chose to shoot Cocoon in the Tampa Bay area because the story was set there and it had an active retirement community, which was integral to the story of how aliens rejuvenated elderly people in a pre-Viagra world.

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Shooting “Cocoon” in St. Petersburg in the 1980s

The sci-fi film made in the wake of the popularity of E.T. The Extraterrestrial and Close in Encounters of the Third Kind was well reviewed, a box office hit, and is considered a staple of 80s filmmaking.

Here’s a glimpse into writing Cocoon from the film’s screenwriter;

Cocoon was a manuscript. An unpublished novel. David Saperstein was a New York based writer-producer-filmmaker. Within the novel, there was a great story embedded about aliens, Atlantis and a group of senior citizens in Florida. I took the large strokes of this and tried to re-imagine it in movie terms, through cinematic elements. I took a lot of chances when I pitched my approach to the producers. Zemeckis wanted to re-think the whole thing from what they had. And that is what I did. After a certain point, I just disregarded the narrative of the book and tried to make it my own. Of course, I was always filtering what Saperstein had created. In some ways, this has to be a selfless process. It was never about putting my stamp on anything. It was just about finding the movie in the story and telling the story as a movie.”
Screenwriter Tom Benedek
Go Into The Story interview with Scott Myers 

P.S. Today St. Petersburg & St. Pete Beach could be called the Santa Monica of Florida. Along with its beaches, bars, and upscale hotels there is also a solid presence in the arts. But it’s a heck of a lot cheaper to live there.

P.P.S. A fond memory from my Burbank days was when I was a 21-year-old film school student I worked briefly as a driver for an equipment rental place in Hollywood (BERC) and one day while making a delivery to NBC Studios a security guard asked me if I wanted to see the set where Johnny Carson taped The Tonight Show. Of course, I did. For a kid from Florida who grew up watching Johnny Carson, that was a pretty big deal at the time.

Scott W. Smith 

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“The advice I give for filmmakers starting out is don’t wait for me. Don’t wait for the industry… It’s a mistake to wait for Hollywood to tell you you have a good idea. If you have a good idea, try to make it on your own as cheaply as possible… on your phone.”
Producer Jason Blum (Whiplash, Get Out, Paranormal Activity)
(His Blumhouse Productions focuses on making films in the $3-4 million range)
IndieWire/SXSW: Low-Budget Producer Jason Blum on the Secret of His Success by Paula Bernstein

Related Posts:
“Don’t try and compete with Hollywood”—Edward Burns
How to Shoot a Feature Film in 10 Days
10 Low-Budget Filmmaking Quotes
Shooting a Feature Film in a Coffin
Aiming for Small Scale Success First

Scott W. Smith

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At 23, 24, I was starting to make films. I knew someone who knew [sculptor Louise Bourgeois] very well, and he invited me to visit her studio. It was this huge, huge loft in Brooklyn, and she talked about every single sculpture, every single thing. She has a huge table, full of objects — things she collects, books stacked. She grabs a piece of clay and she says, “I tell you everything started from here, from this piece of clay. Hold it in your hands.” I was like, “It’s a piece of clay.” And then she said, “See, when I started becoming a sculptor, I said, ‘I want to do clay work,’ but I didn’t know what to do or how to transform this clay into something. So I kept this for days in my hand. Then, I finally had some images and something came out. All the emotion was in this piece. My identity of a sculpture is all here.”

For me, that was a lesson, because every time I start a project, I have to metaphorically find this little piece of clay. I spend three months before taking out my camera and trying to understand the place, trying to meet the people.”
Filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi
Filmmaker Magazine article by Roberto Minervini

Last night I watched Gianfranco Rosi’s Sacro GRA which a few years ago was the first documentary film to win Best Picture in the 70 year history of the Venice Film Festival. And while I talk a lot about traditional arch-plot movies on this blog (because movies with an active protagonist with a goal—and a beginning, middle, and end—are the most accessible for audiences) there are other types of storytelling I enjoy.

One of my favorite films of all time Tender Mercies could be considered mini-plot (as could the recent Academy Award winning best film Moonlight). But the hardest sell for audiences is the anti-plot film. Sacro GRA falls into that category.

Yet, it’s a documentary that is quite compelling and beautifully shot. (Actually using the Panasonic AF101 with Zeiss Compact Primes. A camera, by the way, looked down upon by one well-known camera guru here in the States. But in the hands of an artist it’s just a tool to help carve the sculpture.)

Sacro GRA just made me think of the possibilities in filmmaking. If you need a purging of superhero movies from your system, then I recommend a good Italian film like Sacro GRA. It may not have a plot, but it’ll be good for your soul. (As of this writing you can find it on Netflix.)

I look forward to seeing next Rosi’s 2017 Oscar-nominated doc Fire at Sea.

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On the heals of writing yesterday’s post about a filmmaker from Austin, Texas, I thought it was fitting to write about a filmmaker from New Jersey talking about being inspired decades ago by a filmmaker from Austin.

“I was awed by (Richard Linklater’s film) Slacker, that it existed. And Richard’s story was kind of compelling too. This guy from Austin, Texas—not from Hollywood, not from New York—had made a film that’s playing in New York and look at all these people here to see it! And he’d made it for such a low amount of money. But by the end of the film I was thinking, I could definitely do this! And oddly enough it was the reaction that Clerks would have a few years later…Anyway we’re driving back to New Jersey and I say, ‘You Know, Vincent, I think that’s what I want to do. I think I want to make a film.”
Kevin Smith
My First Movie
20 Directors Talk About Their First Film
Page 74
Edited by Stephen Lowenstein

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Note: This is not a repost from 2008—despite the camera referenced—it’s a brand new post on April 2, 2017.

“Buy a camera and start shooting. It’s that simple.”
Advice from a filmmaker whose first feature just played at SXSW

Let’s say you work at a taco joint and think to yourself, “Man, I’d sure like to make a feature film,”—where would you start? Oh, and the problem is you have little money and no real film experience. Were would you start?

There are many options including going to film school, working as a PA and learning as much as you can on the set and working your way up, or you could go the Parker Smith route.

Parker who? What? (Yes, the guy who gave that simple advice to buy a camera and start shooting.)

Parker Smith’s film Ramblin’ Freak debuted at the SXSW film festival just a few weeks ago. In a No Film School podcast interview with Joe Fusco, Smith said he basically binge watched documentary after documentary, bought two DVX 100B cameras, and hit the road with his cat and learned to be a filmmaker by shooting 55 hours of tape.

Yes, tape. Kickin’ it old school with DV tape.  I bought the Panasonic DVX 100 camera around 2003 shortly after it first came out. I was on a shoot with Orlando DP Ben Mesker and he was raving about the 24p film look of the DVX. This was in the days when high-end video shoots were done using DigiBeta cameras.

The standard rate in the early 2000s for a two person DigiBeta shoot was $1,300-1,500 per day. The DVX sold for around $3,500. I’ll never forget running into Randy Baker, another producer/cameraman friend, at a bookstore in Orlando and him encouraging me to buy the DVX 100 telling me it’d pay for itself after a couple of freelance shoots.

That’s what I did. Changed my life in some ways. (Much as the Canon 5D did later for others.) That DVX camera helped me as I went out on on own in what ended up being a 13-year self-employment production run. Over time I moved up the Panasonic food chain (HVX 200, AF 100), but that DVX not only paid a lot of bills, but opened doors for me shoot documentaries in Russia, Jamaica, South Africa, and Brazil.

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With my trusty (now classic) DVX 100 camera in 2006/Cape Town, South Africa

When I flew in a seaplane over the Amazon River, in one of my coolest production experiences ever, I was shooting with a DVX100. And part of the DVX legacy is DP Nancy Schreiber won a best cinematography at Sundance for shooting November (2004) shot on the DVX, and the Duplass brothers shot The Puffy Chair (2005) also with the DVX.

But today, a DVX is only worth around $200. It’s a stand def camera. Why shoot in a digital world today on standard def on cameras 10 years old? Because you have a goal to be a feature filmmaker (and you have little money).

Embrace your limitations. That’s what Parker Smith did.

“I’ll actually have a shift delivering tacos the morning of my premiere. I will be off in time to attend though.”
Parker Smith
Interview with Jason Whyte/@jasonwhyte before the Rambin’ Freak premiere at SXSW

Now I don’t know if Smith has a distribution deal or not, but from the buzz I’ve heard, I’d say his documentary is worth a minimum of $100,000 in a Netflix deal. Not bad for a guy working at a taco joint who had a dream, an idea, a cat (people love cats, never forget that), and the willingness to shoot with cameras that most 16-year-olds living in McMansions wouldn’t even use for a web camera.

I doubt Smith will be shooting on a DVX again, but like many of us former DVX users, it will always hold a special place in his heart.

P.S. The DVX 100 now has a big brother, the DVX 200 that shoots in 4K. I’ve been to a demo for it, but haven’t shot with it yet. Writing this post has made me all nostalgic again for the DVX which I think when I stopped using it had logged around 900 hours.

Scott W. Smith

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“The Woman in the Room remains on my short list of favorite film adaptions.”
Stephen King

If you’re a filmmaker just starting out, don’t compare yourself to Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption—or his most recent work in creating The Walking Dead—look at what King was doing in his early twenties when he made the short film The Woman in the Room (based on a Stephen King short story).

Scott W. Smith

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