Independent film has been around forever, really. As soon as one system is set up, there will be a group of filmmakers who make their films independent of that system. However, the idea behind independent film has changed over the years. Recently, and by recently I mean the last decade, there's been various forms of independent film. Hollywood calls independent film, films that are made outside of the studio system. Therefore, indie film can have a budget well into the millions, have name actors and other name talent attached. What I tend to call independent film is something completely different... what I call independent film is sometimes referred to as micro-cinema. Films that are made for next to nothing, generally guerrilla style and are usually shot on DV. That style of filmmaking is really in its infancy, as the cost of being able to produce a micro-cinema film has really only dropped dramatically in the last few years...
If you look at the history of innovation in film, you really have to look to the edges... and generally, you're looking at the scummy, filthy edges. Usually, porn and horror. I could write an essay on it, but those two genres are what pushes the industry in new directions. They were the first to adapt to video, they were the first to adapt to the internet and they were the first to adapt to the micro-cinema style. The thing about porn and horror is, the audiences don't care if it's shot on video, they don't care if it's shorter or lower-budget. They get what they want out of the content, regardless of whether there's a name actor, a big budget or fantastic production value. It's only later, after audiences have grown accustomed to that style of content, when other genres adapt to this new filmmaking process. So, horror and porn can succeed in an arena where other genre's end up having a tough time. That's why I was particularly interested in Frank Perrotto's "Timid" because, although it is dark and it has horror elements, it's really a drama that's been shot in micro-cinema style.
"Timid" is well acted, has a great story and will entertain you from beginning to end, no question there. Perrotto is definitely a talented filmmaker and I'll be anxiously waiting to see what he can do with a bigger budget. The film is crafted well and has all the elements needed to be a successful drama with a decent festival run... however, it's shot on DV and on a micro-budget. You see, horror can have great success here, as it just needs to be filled with gore, nudity and general mayhem and violence. However, how successful can a well made dramatic film be when it's produced on this scale? Who knows? I do know that, down the road, there will be plenty of dramatic, as well as comedic, musical and other genres done at this scale that will be hugely successful... but Perrotto just may be a bit ahead of his time. In any case, the film deserves its just rewards and it's definitely worth checking out. We had the opportunity to discuss all of this with Perrotto and the interview is long, but definitely worth the read...
First off, tell us a bit about yourself. What are your influences and what got you into indie filmmaking?
Well, growing up in a New Jersey suburb during the 80’s, of course everything from Spielberg and Lucas is a major influence. But my parents were pretty ‘loose’ in what they allowed me to watch, so I think by the time I was six, I had already seen The Shining and Raging Bull. They just didn’t tell me to leave the room or anything, so by that age I think I was pretty messed up! It didn’t dawn on me as a career until I was 16 and two things happened: 1) I read George Lucas: The Creative Impulse, by Charles Champlin, and that made me think, for some reason, that I should be a writer. I was starting to feel that I should be doing something creative and was encouraged to write more by my high school english teacher at the time. But then the second thing happened, which is that I saw “Lawrence of Arabia”, and that just knocked me flat and made me realize I want to direct movies. Since then, the influences are all over the place, but mostly late 60’s and 70’s films like Dog Day Afternoon, Scarecrow, The Last Detail, and Midnight Cowboy. I just love those directors and the documentary style they brought to their films.
Film School, Yes or No?
I’m both for film school and against. The part of me that is for going to film school says that if you’re 18 or 19, and you have the means, and you’re not going to be paying loans off for the next 12 years, then yes, go to film school. That social part of filmmaking is hard at first for a lot of people and it can be very discouraging if you’re insecure. Of course, so is everyone else but you’re the director, so who are the cast and crew going to pick at? So by going to film school, it provides a safe place to fail. It’s said so much that’s a cliché by now, but you’ll also make some of the most important connections of your career.
The other part of me says that if you really have a lot of confidence and you’ve done your homework, and you have a few short films under your belt, then take the 20k+ that you’ll spend on school and go shoot a feature instead. If you have to go to school, get a degree in something else at a small community college or state university and make films on the side. Take some of the money from your loans and start buying equipment.
My own experience with film school is that I went to USC’s summer directing/producing workshop four days after graduating high school, and that program thrusts you into seven weeks of non-stop filmmaking. Not only that, you spend one day a week on the Universal lot (the actual lot, not the theme park) with guest speakers. The first day at Universal, it was 12 or so students and then Gerald Molen, who produced Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park for Spielberg, had literally walked over from Amblin where he’d just had a conversation with ‘Steven’ about the move to Dreamworks. That same day, we had the production designer on the Jim Carrey film Liar, Liar, take us on a tour of all the sets while they were still being built. It was like that every week, just big names showing up and treating us like we were their peers. I remember Rob Tapert, who is Sam Raimi’s producer, asking me where I was from. I said, “New Jersey”, and he said, “Stay in New Jersey, don’t come out here… stay there and make a film.” That was a nice piece of advice that I never forgot, but I think after the film is done, Los Angeles is really the place to be, which is why my wife and I moved here a few months ago.
The USC experience spoiled me horribly, so when it came time to go to the University of Central Florida in the fall, I had to do two years of general ed before I could even apply to their film school. In that frustration I found another school in Orlando called Full Sail, which was 13 months/50+hours a week, and I hate to say it, but I didn’t have a good time there at all. It’s a purely technical school, though it wasn’t advertised as such. This was 10 years ago, so it may have changed since, but that was my experience. It was nothing like USC, which is pure film. Several of the people I was in that summer program with have since gone on to some success in genre films. I cut a 16mm project that summer with Gregg Bishop who went on to direct “The Other Side” and “Dance of the Dead”, and Jason Shumway has a sci-fi indie he’s working on called “Enigma”.
Tell us a bit about “Timid”, what’s it about and where did you get the idea?
“Timid” is the story of Tim Idalco, a guy in his late 20’s who is the introverted, bookish type. At the start of the film, he’s in a situation typical of a lot of young Americans today: he’s struggling financially while working a job that he hates with credit card bills piled sky high. He wants the brass ring (and his girlfriend wants a ring of her own), and he has an idea of how to get it through this web start-up. So he gets in touch with an old friend from high school, Jack, because he knows Jack has the means to invest in this business. Jack wants to get their friendship back on track, and Tim just wants the money. So right there, you have that tension, and so he dangles the money over Tim’s head, twisting his arm to get him to come along for a weekend at a hunting lodge with three of Jack’s old meathead friends: Bryce (the leader of the trio), Sidler, and Teddy. Over the long weekend, they give Tim a really hard time, setting up this alpha male situation that plays out over the remainder of the film. The Peckinpah film “Straw Dogs” was a big influence when I was writing the script.
The script was written around the fact that we had access to a hunting lodge that my father is part owner of. It’s been passed down in his family since they built it in the 1940’s, but he’s not really a hunter. So he was there a few years ago to fix their heat and he came back and said that I should consider it as a location to shoot something. I then took an incident that happened to a friend of mine one weekend in the poconos with a bunch of guys who were drinking too much, and then I yoked it together with something from my own life, where an old high school friend was going to invest in a film I wanted to do. I put those two story elements together and that became the script.
What was the approx budget and how did you secure financing?
The budget was just under $16,000, although we actually doubled up on some of that money by selling equipment and using it for post-production. If I’d already had the equipment and the lights, which a lot of people do, it would have cost about $7,000. Everyone got paid something, it wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to keep everyone around!
I went to friends and family, asking them to invest, and most of them said no. Prior to Timid, I was raising money with my actor/writer friend, Dave Scotti, to shoot a 35mm short film. He had written and played the lead in a short called “The Right Hook” which launched Luke Greenfield’s directing career. A good deal of the book “Short Films 101” is devoted to the making of that short. The idea for Dave and I was to do another of these “balls-to-the-wall” career-launching short films, but we had a few disagreements and that project fell apart. At that point, I had already raised $6,000.00 for the short, so that went into the pot for Timid. I managed to raise another $5,000 and then I went to my father and I told him that if I had at least $4,000 more, we could start by September. If we didn’t get it, I would have had to give the money back and wait until Spring, because the film just didn’t work shooting in the Jersey winter. He stepped up, as did my wife’s uncle with the initial investment, and if it weren’t for those two, I would never have gotten to make the film so I really owe it all to them.
What did you shoot on and how long was the shoot?
I shot on the HVX200 using P2 cards. We shot 720p at 24 frames per second, natively. We did the 720p native because I could use one P2 card and break every 20 minutes to get my head together while we offloaded the card.
That said, we had to go back and reshoot some scenes, mainly the conversation between Jack and Tim that is really the crux of the film. That didn’t work as originally shot and so we rewrote it and tried different things until we wound up with what’s in the film. At that point, I had already sold the HVX200 to get started on post-production, so in order to get a lot of leftover inserts and to reshoot that scene, I purchased a Canon HV20, which I absolutely love. There were some people who said, “but it won’t match, blah, blah, blah,” but it was all I could afford to finish the film and improve the story. Using Apple Color, it matched up fine. When ‘matching’ becomes a bigger priority than getting your point across, then I think you’ve gotten too far away from what’s important.
The movie takes place in Hoboken, New Jersey and then a hunting lodge in New Gretna, New Jersey. All of the set-up in Hoboken was shot piecemeal over 8 months. There were just so many locations in those first 30 minutes that we would just do it on weekends whenever everyone was available and we could use the location. Doing it that way enabled us to widen the scope of the film and shoot in quite a few locations we couldn’t shoot in if we had to lock them down to a schedule.
For the hunting lodge scene we had a block of 6 days in order to get through 60 pages of material. That got whittled down, and I really wrote myself into a pickle, because I wanted to see how far you could go with these cameras getting incredibly beautiful images with available light or just a bounce card and then a sound guy and one or two grips. So I wrote a scene in a motel nearby, I wrote a scene on a boat… I went nuts and, at times, paid the price for it because one thing going wrong meant shooting pick-ups months later.
I thought the idea behind the film was very timely… I think there are lots of people that can identify with the themes and ideas behind Tim Idalco’s situation. You did a fantastic job creating his character and his desperation. Was today’s economic climate and society something you were thinking about during the filmmaking process?
Yes it was. I first started writing it in 2006 before the majority of this stuff happened. I was working a temp job for Verizon Wireless with my friend, Tom Prickett, who plays the main character. His daughter was born right around the time we were going to shoot, so we put it on hold for a while and then I got into doing the 35mm short that I mentioned previously. Once the short fell through, I came back to Tom and asked him about doing ‘Jack Dog’, which was the title at the time, and he was ready to go. So by then it was the summer of 2007 and the housing market is falling through and gas prices are sky-high… the whole sub-prime mess was well under way. I wrote that into the script and the original scene where Tim asks for the money had Jack mentioning sub-prime specifically with regards to Tim wanting to buy a house. Doing it that way seemed a bit too on-the-nose, which is another reason we reshot the scene. But I never expected things to get as bad as they are now and for the story to dovetail a little bit with the insanity of the times we’re in. It definitely helps the film but I don’t know if I’d call that luck!
I have to ask about the score. Near the end, the score was very basic, almost just repetitive noise. I have no idea if it was on purpose, but I thought it was extremely effective. Talk about the music and score of the film.
Right now, we still have a temp score that’s about 90% music by a well known synth-music duo called Boards of Canada. I doubt we could get the rights, although if we find a distributor, who knows? For the a movie like this, a psychological drama, I believe it’s better to use whatever music puts the film in the best possible light whether you can get the rights or not. If you have a horror or science fiction film, I think it’s better to have a complete package that they can just pick up, print the DVD’s, and then send them out to netflix and walmart. A film like this is obviously a tougher sell, so I think you have to show a distributor that the film does work as a movie-going experience, and that’s not always possible with the music you can get on a tight budget. But it’s also important not to go too far and have your movie center around Beatles songs or something that’s too difficult to replace.
With regards to the repetitive sounds, that’s from the tail end of a Board’s piece called “Everything You Do Is A Balloon.” I had a feeling that the only thing that would work in that last 10-12 minutes would be something where you didn’t know if it was meant to be music or ambient sound, and I felt like that would build the tension or make the audience uneasy. I got the idea from the ominous bells near the end of “Boogie Nights”, where you know you’re on the downward slope just from the music and I wanted something similar, but organic. In the sound mix (which we’re still tweaking) I’ve since lowered those sounds a little to push them to the background so it would be less confusing.
I thought you did a great job casting, the group of guys were perfect… but Tom Prickett did a great job playing the nervous, unconfident Tim. There was one scene, in particular, where he takes his girlfriend to go play pool at Bryce’s place and his awkwardness and incompetenence made me a big uncomfortable – very effective scene. Talk a bit about your directing style and how you created that feeling.
I just like the actors to feel they’re in a collaborative atmosphere. On a film like this, the script is a jumping off point. Very often, we would stand around and go through it line-by-line, and anything that felt weird or unrealistic would make us stop and try to fix it. Sometimes you can’t find a solution or you don’t have the time, so you do the best you can with the script, and that falls on me. But the tension itself I think was easy to create because the actor who kind of plays Tim’s nemesis, Shawn Dempewolff, did such a fantastic job at creating the character of Bryce and making him not only an asshole, but a likeable asshole! And then, as an audience member, you know you’re supposed to be with Tim, because he’s the main character but goddamn it if you don’t like this Bryce guy! I think that created an inherent tension that wasn’t there as much on the page. It also doesn’t hurt that Tim’s girlfriend is thinking the same thing about Bryce and often shows it. So I think a combination of the incredible talent of the actors, which casting great people does 80% of your job as a director, and then the other 20% is just knowing when they’re right and you’re wrong and giving in.
Tell us about some of the hurdles you overcame to get the film done. What advice can you pass on to other indie filmmakers who are just setting out to make a film?
My number one piece of advice is to stick to your vision and whatever it is that got you excited about making the film in the first place. That and having a good support system, whether it be a close friend, your spouse, or a family member, are the only things that will get you through it. But you really have to hold on to what you care about and stay connected to the reason you’re doing it. It’s such a difficult thing to do a feature film that once you’re finished, you have respect for anyone that can actually get through it with a finished product, no matter what that product is. I think our biggest hurdle on Timid was the scope of the script, which was actually my own fault. I set out to see how much I could do with the money we had and although we got it all in, there are times where you’re like… why didn’t I just write two characters in a room? The other big hurdle is that I was doing a lot of it myself. Most of the time it was my wife, Danielle Kinder, who was the producer on the film, one or two grips, the actors and then me directing, holding the camera, and doing the lighting. I edited about 80% of the film alone, and then I found this talented young guy, Alex Megaro, to help out near the end. I also had to put the editing on hold because I got a gig as an editor on a show for MTV, and it was impossible to edit all day there and then come home and do even more editing on the film.
Did you enter “Timid” into any festivals? If so, how did it do and is the festival circuit something that every indie horror filmmaker should consider doing?
We just entered a handful of festivals and probably won’t hear anything for a few more weeks. I’m doing a filmmaker blog on the website, www.timidmovie.com, which I’m actually starting the first entry with a link to this article. Any news about festivals, screenings, and whatever else will be on that site. The other part of the question, should you consider festivals, I say yes. I think especially for horror films, there are plenty of great places to get your film out there and you have a great chance of actually getting it in in front of an audience and, if it works, getting distribution. I went the other way and did a drama, which the jury is still out on the festival thing for me. From speaking to other filmmakers who have done the festival circuit with a dramatic film, the consensus seems to be that the festivals a dramatic indie need in order to survive have become more political and vague than Hollywood itself. I feel like you at least have a reference point with regards to getting into the studio system, because they care about one thing: money. So what makes money? Horror, sci-fi, comic books, and star-studded romcoms or Oscar grabs. Ok, I get that, so you make your movie within that framework and maybe you wind up with The Exorcist or The Dark Knight. The indie scene, on the other hand, seems bent on the whims of whomever the programmer of the festival is and their politics. Having gone to a few festivals myself, I often end up staring at the screen going, “that got in?” In one instance, a friend of mine had a film that was denied by a festival that I went to, and I’d say his was better than at least 50% of the films that I had seen there. So did anybody actually watch it and compare it to the other entries? You have to wonder. I also think it’s becoming very difficult for low-budget dramatic films to find an audience or a distributor now that the big festivals are programming more and more of the lower-end Hollywood fare. You look at the photos from Sundance and every group of people behind every film looks like an ad for the Gap and they’ve got some famous tv actor that wants to get into features in their film and the budget is $2 million dollars. I mean, is that really an indie?
Talk about the process of finding distribution. What would you tell filmmakers who’ve recently finished a film and are looking for distribution?
Since Dead Harvey is geared towards horror and I’ve recently investigated doing a horror film, I think the main thing is to get into a few of the horror-centric festivals. Once you do that, you’ve got some leverage when you start cold calling or emailing the tons of distributors that are out there. Don’t expect to make a lot of money, if any. Just try to get it released and hope that it at least makes money for the distributor, because then it will be easier to get the money to make another one. You become a proven quantity. It also seems like having a great image for your poster or DVD cover is important, especially for horror, as well as a good title and a product that they can easily slap a UPC on and start selling.
Most low-budget films are horror based or are extreme, in one way or the other. “Timid” does have its dark ending, but it is, for the most part, a dramatic film. What can you tell us about the market for low-budget dramas? What’s the response been like?
Like I said, from what I’ve seen and heard, I think it’s very difficult. That’s not really a surprise as distributors are only thinking about how they can sell it. If you’re running a business and you pop in a horror film with some memorable kills and a killer with a fancy mask and he’s got a special tool that he commits his murders with, and then you pop in some tearjerker with no stars, which one is the easier sell? I’m lucky enough that I have some violence that is organically part of the film, so I can take certain images and be selective and suggest the violence in my poster and the trailer. But I think if you’re going to do a film about two people who just can’t find a way to be together and one of them has a terminal disease and it’s sad and weapy, then you better have your ducks in a row and know ahead of time what the likely outcome will be.
As far as the market, I actually believe that there is almost no market for low-budget drama except for other people who make low-budget films. If you’re making a drama, it must be so good that it can’t be ignored. Whether Timid fits into that category isn’t for me to decide, I only did the best I could with what I had. I did purposefully incorporate certain elements that made it timely and more visceral so that it might be an easier sell. With horror and sci-fi, you have far more leeway with regards to the quality of the acting, since they’re often more about a clever idea and a sense of fun. I think the acting in Primer is passable, but once they suck you in with their idea of time travel, you can’t help but get caught up in it to see where it’s going and it’s one of my favorite sci-fi films because of that.
Where can people find out more about “Timid” or, better yet, buy a copy?
We have a website, www.timidmovie.com, or you can go to our page on IMDB, which we’ll soon be updating with a scene from the film, a new trailer, and whatever other information or news comes down the pike. Feel free to email me through the site if you have any questions or to request a screener DVD.
Talk about the indie scene and indie filmmaking. Where do you feel it is now and where do you see it going?
Right now, nearly anyone can make a film with very little money. The reality, however, is that very few of those people will be able to make a living at it. So I think over the next few years, the number of indies being made will actually go down. Forty years ago, you had to really want to make a film, because the learning curve of the technology was a lot different. If you look at Scorsese’s first feature, it has a messiness to it and his later style sometimes shows through, but you can tell that he really wanted to say something on film and the fact that any of it got through to the final movie is almost a miracle. He even said, “if something came back on the film, then that was pretty good.” Now it seems like everyone is worried about, “are you shooting 4k or 2k?”and “do you have a good DOF adaptor?” and all of that, but the audience and the market are the ultimate arbiters of what gets released. You can shoot in IMAX, and if it’s not interesting, nobody is going to care. Conversely, if you have a great story and good actors, you can shoot on VHS and people will still watch it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t care about the visual quality, it definitely has increased in importance, even to distributors, but I think the digital technology has made a lot of indie filmmakers lose sight of the two most important things: the story and the talent of your actors.
Other than that, I believe that George Lucas was right from day one about pushing HD. The move to digital will take the power out of the hands of the studios for one simple reason: distribution will soon involve sending out 1,000 digibetas or HDCAM tapes rather than twelve or thirteen extremely heavy cans of film. On one hand, you need a system of trucks and delivery guys, huge sums of money, and access to film labs capable of printing thousands of reels at a time, and then on the other hand you need a dupe house, a fedex account, and probably less than $20k. The studios will still have power because of their enormous resources and the synergistic opportunities of being a conglomerate, but it will make it easier for smaller entities to compete since they won’t need those distribution channels that have been in place for over seventy years. Then it becomes a matter of, now that the playing field is level, how do you even sift through all the noise to find the gems? That’s the part that I think everyone, even other filmmakers, are hoping will die down just a little bit over the next few years as HD technology crests.
What’s next for you? Do you have any projects in the works?
The next project that I’m doing is a science fiction character blog called The Grey Corridor and it’s at www.woodsulmann.com. It centers around this very strange guy, Woods Ulmann, who wrote a book a few years ago called Xenophobia, about his experiences with alien abduction. As the story picks up, he’s struggling with writing another book, so he’s bought a video camera and started a blog in order to have more immediate access to his audience. Through all the various forms of social media like twitter and facebook, and then things like his youtube channel and the blog, we’re going to tell a story over about 40-50 blog entries, hundreds of tweets, and about 12 youtube videos. Ultimately, the blog will lead to a short film that will premiere online and the entire arc of the first ‘season’ leads up to this short. We’ve really set about writing a satisfying story where if you pay close attention to the clues planted throughout these sites, then there are a number of pay-offs in the story down the line. Honestly, it’s an experiment to see if we can start a sci-fi franchise for little to no money that could lead to something bigger, like… I don’t know, a sci-fi channel original movie! We kind of want to do a lonelygrl16 for the comic book and sci-fi set, something that we’d like to see online ourselves. There will be videos and other content on the site very soon, so just bookmark it now or get the RSS feed, or facebook and twitter request Woods, and then you can stay in the loop as it starts up over the next few weeks.