GETTING AN INDEPENDENT FILM PROJECT OFF THE GROUND
GETTING AN INDEPENDENT FILM PROJECT OFF THE GROUND
Interview with Ben Wagner, Post-Supervisor by day & Director/Producer by all-the-time-he-can-find
So, Ben…tell us a bit about the origin story of your most recent passion project.
The name of the project is SURVEILLANCE: CASTELEVARA. Many years back, my writing partner, Matt, and I wrote an action spy thriller set in a fictitious city-state on the verge of a coup. I'd been trying to get it off the ground as a feature project and I kept hitting this wall when I would present the project to actors where they didn't fully understand the visual style of what we were trying to do; how we intended to depict the gamesmanship of the rival surveillance teams by playing with the visuals from a subjective point of view. I couldn't communicate it very cleanly in a verbal pitch or a look book, so I realized the way to get over that hurdle would be to shoot a teaser showcasing what the visual style would be. Initially it was going to be just that - a teaser - a handful of shots that exemplified what I was trying to go for. Eventually, I thought “Well, why don't I use the backbone a couple of scenes from the feature and restructure that to make a short story that stands on its own and tells an intriguing tale in 3 1/2 minutes…that's a good calling card for what the feature could be.” And, that was the start of it.
At that point, were you still planning on just using that to pitch the full length or did you have aspirations of taking it to film festivals?
I'm starting this Film Festival process with it right now! I literally just wrapped it. Well I mean it was a couple months ago now, but this feels like it was yesterday because I've been so busy with work. There was definitely still a business purpose to it when I started, but as soon as I decided that I was going to undertake the process of doing something on this scale, I committed to telling the best story possible and I wanted to really make it something that wasn't just for the sales people.
How did you get the short film project off the ground?
You just go for it. I called in favors from people that I know. Luckily, Matt is very well connected in the spy media spheres and, because of that, was able to get the film scored by Joe Kraemer (scored Mission Impossible Rogue Nation). And, my neighbor and friend, Bruce McCleery is a major action DP (2nd UDP for lot of Bad Robot projects), so we were able to get him on board. Then, probably the biggest spy-centric “get” we got was George Lazenby (James Bond) for voiceover work.
So, aside from pulling favors, what kind of budget did you start out with?
The problem with knowing post production and film budgets is that you know how much things really cost. That's probably the number one limit, or intimidation, to getting anything off the ground. You just have to accept the fact this is stupid and you're going to spend a lot of money and it might not have the return that you expect - but you're doing it because it's a fun project. I was the sole investor, so I started small…and it scaled with my ambition. My budget rapidly ballooned.
I'm definitely a beg, borrow and steal kind of filmmaker, where I try to figure out how to stretch every dollar I can. But I also get in a lot of trouble because my ambitions usually end up being bigger or I reach a point where suddenly I get in over my head, beyond my initial plans. Then I have no choice but to get out the credit card to cover the overage. When I had very modest aspirations, the budget was totally manageable and then I thought, “Hey, you know what? I really want an awesome action sequence - even if it's only 30 seconds – and I'm going to have to do this right.” And, to do it right involved getting the right cameras, getting the right insurance, getting a really skilled and talented stunt team. It no longer was something that I could just do in my backyard.
As the sole investor, did you ever hit moments where you could not afford your ambition?
Yes. Like when you realize that your backyard isn't going to cut it for the high-end hotel resort and spa scene you envision, and that renting a real hotel space is over your credit card comfort zone. That’s when I called in another favor to shoot by my good friends’ backyard pool. In that case, I had to scale my ambitions down but also get creative with how I shot the space, so it didn’t appear that I scaled down. I wanted a scene that looked really expensive, so I got selective with the camera angle and, using a quick rack focus and some inventive set dressing, made a 10 second little moment feel like it was at a much bigger, richer space than it was.
I think part of doing something of this scale on an independent budget is looking at every challenge as being something fun that you can overcome. “How do I make this look realistic without compromising my vision?” For me, it was great to know that I had other people who were supportive of my idea, from friends to hired talent. Nick Hermz, the stunt coordinator, was very supportive of the project and was willing to call in favors to help. He, at one point, got us access to shoot the action sequence in Air Hollywood, which is basically sets with actual airplanes. Matt and I rewrote the script to shoehorn that space into the film, because it didn't make ANY logical sense for them to have a fight on an airplane in the story that we had been planning…but it would look really cool and fun, you know, if they did. And, in that case, the challenge was overcoming obstacles to utilize an opportunity that presented itself. (Sadly, due to scheduling issues, that airplane fight scene ultimately didn’t get filmed.)
With low budget filmmaking, you just have to be resourceful with the minimal assets that you have available and when a good asset presents itself that can lift the production value (or the appearance of the production value). Whenever I talk with people about this, I say that what you should be doing is thinking about whether there is something unique at your disposal: a summer house, a spot where you grew up that’s unlike anything else that anyone knows, your roommate’s family farm, your neighbor’s factory or warehouse. Anything you can leverage in the narrative. Anything that can heighten the story and give you some more production value.
Is it safe to assume that while you were working on this project, you still had a day-job to get done? And, if so, did that hinder getting this project done?
Yes. I am currently a post supervisor on various movies and TV shows and was employed as such while I worked on SURVEILLANCE. If making SURVEILLANCE were my day job, I would have had the whole thing done in a month, month and a half, you know, and that's with time to spare. But when you're working full time, you only have select weekends…and then one weekend happens to be your daughter's birthday and the next weekend happens to be a holiday or whatever…and something that you would otherwise knock out in three days ends up taking way longer. I had the idea that motivated me to do this about a year ago (November 2019) and was originally thinking I could even shoot in December. But work got in the way. Then it was the Holidays.
If you're making a short film, or any film, you need to get your insurance; if you have union actors, you’ve got to get your SAG-AFTRA paperwork in. That takes time, and all this stuff ends up eating into your after-work hours, and what would take three days takes months. So, we finally shot it in one weekend during February, took a breather for a minute, then started editing…pretty much right as COVID happened. I was working from home and would finish my workday, then roll over to my editing system and just segue right into that until however late it would take.
I pretty much had the cut locked by April, but then I had to color correct. Because of COVID, I couldn't get into a room to do it in person. It was just passing cuts back and forth, and my colorist was working on his time off too (favor number 44), so that took months. Similarly, my VFX took months. And, again, if it was my full-time job (and there was no COVID), I could get it through the pipeline quickly. Instead, everything could only happen in the evenings and on the weekends and took longer than it needed. Instead of just being six weeks of my life, it was more like 8 to 9 months before it was finally ready to be shown. Lots of patience and not beating myself up for not getting it done too quickly. And, constant frustration with myself, and even frustration with my friends who were doing me favors (which is not fair because, you know, they're helping me out). I was like, “Come on man! I need my VFX!” But I knew he was taking the time necessary to do a great job and that he also had a full-time job, like me, on top the favor he was doing for me.
Let’s geek out a bit on the post production / editing side of things. Tell us some details about some of the editing equipment and plug-ins you used.
I definitely like trying to do new and different visual things and I worked in VR for stretch. So, I’m familiar with the equirectangular imagery that they use for making VR. (When you're editing in VR, it's how it flattens out the 360 image so that you can actually cut with it.) I wanted to integrate that, so I used a 360 camera in a 2D way and just tried it. I also used Red Giant plugins to add some video flourishes here and there to add to the unique visual style I was seeking. All “prosumer” kind of stuff that was readily available.
And that's the other thing: obviously you could do this high-end editing software to really accomplish a lot, but there are enough prosumer hacks and tricks that you can use to get it done just good enough. Truth be told, a lot of these tricks are used in major movies that, I'm sure, professional post production people reading this interview would be familiar with, because they've been using these tricks themselves in their professional jobs. I think that's one of the great things about working in post production: you learn so many tricks of how to more easily accomplish what you want on the screen. You also know the issues with how to fix something when you shoot it wrong – and what the problems are with fixing it. When you go in production knowing that, then you know “I gotta fix this right now during filming,” or “I have to shoot it this way,” so post runs smoother. It’s the explanation of why Spielberg is so good. He spent so much time learning editing so that he shoots exactly what he knows the editors need in the bay to make the film come together right. I think that is a huge advantage of working in post production. Understanding how the puzzle has to be assembled at the end makes it a lot easier to get the right pieces from the beginning.
Did your background in post production help you feel more capable of tackling this short film project?
With my day job being in post production, I know “how the sausage is made” and have good connections. That was definitely helpful. I knew what levers I could pull to make things more efficiently and also had relationships (more favors) that made the post process a lot more economical. Working in post production also helped me know what minimum editing system I needed to do it and, I set up my own system at home so I could edit on Premiere. Without this background, I probably would not have been able to afford to do it at the scope that I wanted.
I actually directed 2 features before and had the experience of producing them both. My previous projects where smaller projects, similarly, where I just had the germ of an idea and it rapidly spiraled into something much bigger than I intended it to be. Whenever I have one of these sorts of moments - a spark where I just have to pursue it – I kind of warm my wife “I just had another one of those moments, something that I have to do.” This kind of moment. She knows. She can see it in my eyes when I have one of those. And, she knows that it's going to happen. The train has gotten momentum and it's leaving the station and it's not stopping.
I was a little rusty remembering exactly how to file the signatory paperwork with SAG and exactly how to get the insurance riders. Unless you're doing that in your day-to-day it can get overwhelming. Thankfully, also because of working in the industry, I know producers and people who definitely guided and helped me. I will say, I have to “thank you” to a friend of mine Mike Meilander who I work with. As I was starting to get over my head with the scale of the film (right around the time the Air Hollywood opportunity came up), I said “Hey dude, can you help me out?” He said, “I can't help you, but my friend Max can.” He got me in touch with this friend, Max Elfeldt, and he saved my hide. I had gotten in so far over my head trying to both produce and direct it as it scaled up. The quality of the film would have suffered had I not had a producer step in. Having the contacts I did helped me get someone talented and friendly to my low-budget cause.
What was one of the hardest parts of making this passion project happen?
When I was in my 20s, right out of college, directing my first film project, I thought “Everyone should want to do this for free, because it’s so fun and my idea is so amazing!” But now, older and wiser, I was a little gun shy about asking people to donate their time and energy and assets, because you don’t want to take advantage and you understand these people have their own day job, ambitions and life. You kind of have to swallow your pride a little bit when you want to do one of these projects and accept the fact that you're doing something that requires you to ask favors, put yourself out there, and maybe embarrass yourself a little bit to some extent.
And, now that your film is finished and heading into the film festival circuit, have you shown your pet project to anyone?
Filmmaking is inherently a social art form in that it's not something you can create in a vacuum. Ultimately, part of the experience of the art is how it is interpreted and experienced by an audience. I personally don't believe you can make it without having an understanding of how it's going to be understood, interpreted or received by an audience; so, I think it is important to get feedback. Having said that, I definitely waited to a specific point of readiness before I showed it around. There are certain elements about the visual style that wouldn't translate unless they were properly executed, certain pacing and rhythm that needed finishing. I waited a little bit longer than usual, closer to fine cut than rough cut, to get feedback. Obviously, I showed it to my wife, then showed it to my closer friends. Started small, gradually growing out to larger concentric circles of trust. Some of the last people to see it were Joe Kraemer (who did the score) and George Lazenby (voiceover), because I needed the film to be in good enough shape that they could see the possibilities of what it was going to be and want to be a part of it.
What’s next for SURVEILLANCE?
I’m working on the paperwork for film festivals and beginning the networking of getting the project seen, both for its own virtue as a short film and as a calling card for a larger-scale feature film. Whatever happens with it, it was worth the adventure. The fact of the matter is I love having the creative outlet. Having the opportunity to create anything is a joy. I'd rather be doing that than my day job, so obviously it's easy to motivate myself to stay up for five or six hours after work to create something like this. It’s more rewarding for me than staying up to play video games.