Thursday, September 16, 2010

Interview with Scott Phillips, director of "Meadowoods"

Okay, you've made a few short films and you have a few ideas for features rolling around in your head. Finally, you make the decision... I'm going to make a feature. However, as most Dead Harvey readers, you have limited funds and you can't afford much more than a standard DV camera. Well, one way to go would be to completely disregard your lack of funds and the format you're going to shoot on... make the film that's in your head, come hell or high water - a move that a lot of filmmakers do. Another way to go would be to realize and understand your limitations, then cater an idea around your lack of funds and format... make a film that fits the medium and is, therefore, believable. Obviously, either route could succeed or fail, but I think it's safe to assume that you're going to increase your odds of success when you truly understand your limitations. Oren Peli understood his limitations with "Paranormal Activity", Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez and the guys behind "Blair Witch" knew their limitations... and Scott Phillips, writer/director of "Meadowoods" knew his limitations.

"Meadowoods" is one of those films that I watched and thought to myself, "Damn, why hasn't this been done before?" I don't mean the concept. I mean, why didn't someone think of doing this concept, in this style, on this medium? It's a good thing that no one else did it, too... because, as far as I'm concerned, there's no way that it could've been done better than "Meadowoods". The film is creepy, dramatic, suspenseful and, most importantly, believable. If you want to know how to stretch a low budget and make something that works, while shooting on DV, watch this film... and, of course, read this interview. "Meadowoods" is as good as low-budget filmmaking gets and if that's your wheelhouse, this is a must-see film.

First off, I recently saw “Meadowoods” and thought it was unreal. Great job. For our readers that haven’t seen it yet, please tell us what it’s all about.

In a sleepy and uneventful small town, three college students, bored and desperate to make their mark, plot a savage and merciless murder. Electing to keep a video journal to memorialize their bizarre pact, they plot in secret, devising a homemade death chamber that will allow them to see, hear, feel, and linger over their intended victim's torment and final moments of life. Then, chosen at random, a fellow student becomes this victim when she is to receive perhaps the most brutal and horrifying of all fates. The default leader of this macabre trio directs the physical and psychological terror, even as contention and hostility within the group threatens to jeopardize their twisted plan, culminating in a violent and chilling conclusion.

If you don’t mind us asking, what was the budget for “Meadowoods” and how did you secure the financing?

Budget was $15000, not including deferred costs, and the producers financed it with their own money.

We’ve always preached to filmmakers that if they want to shoot on DV, they need to come up with a concept that fits the medium. Otherwise, it’s going to have a tough time selling. Not only was your concept awesome, it fit the medium perfectly. Talk about developing the idea. What came first, the story or the idea to shoot something low-budget on DV?

We started with the concept that we were going to shoot on DV. I have seen too many films where it was obvious the producer/director wanted to make a movie using DV that they hoped would look like they spent a million dollars on. In the end they have a poor looking film that never fools Hollywood. We also knew we did not have the money to "out special affects" films like "SAW". Attempts to do this on small budget like ours always look terrible and cheesy. We also did not want to make another Blair Witch. So based on all of this, we decided we need to make film that took advantage of the DV format, required no real special affects and yet made the audience uncomfortable and where the terror was in the concept rather than effects. We also knew it had to be different if a studio was going to consider it. It could not be another film about a bunch of kids scared in the woods. We then began researching for ideas and came upon the concept of Meadowoods.

To pull a film like this off, you need to have great actors and you certainly had some great actors. Talk about the casting process, where did you find your actors?
Casting is key to making a film work or not, especially with this type of film. Not to pick on small budget films, but again, I have seen so many that take actors with little experience or talent, give them a script and the whole acting on the film seems forced and poorly delivered. Often what unskilled actors will do is not understand the normal beat of dialogue and the process of reacting and listening. If the rhythm is not correct something seems off. As you will read below, we tried to overcome this issue by providing a script that was only an outline for each scene with the thoughts and ideas the actors need to get across. All dialogue was to be improvised. So the key in casting was finding people that could do that very naturally. Beginning actors always feel they must be doing something or reacting (acting) at all times. What they loose is the art of listening and thinking. If you watch people when they are listening, there is often no movement in the eyes or eyebrows. Body motion is slowed, then they process what they heard and react. The timing of reaction can be instant or delayed depending on what the natural response calls for. We had to find people who would listen and react normally given different scenarios. We also needed to make sure the actors were consistent, not one great performance but then could not do it again. We had tons of people audition. We would give them different scenarios and have them adlib it. We found most people would do the scene like they saw in a movie or over act it. It was very frustrating trying to find people for the parts. We kept having certain people come back again and again. We would tape them and then play it back on a Movie screen I had in my house to make sure the acting played on a big screen. Often someone is ok on a small screen put when projected bigger the flaws in their acting shows up. Once we had it down to our top 10 or so people , we had them pair up to see what the chemistry was like between them. After several weeks we had our main cast. The same thinking went into casting even the day players. In this type of film every person has to come off as believable or the whole thing falls apart.

Let’s talk about the story and the script. The film came across as very real and ad-lib at times. Did you write out a full script and, if so, how closely did you follow it?

As mentioned above there was no dialogue written. In addition to the reasons above, we wanted the dialogue to be real as students their age would say it. We did not want to project our concepts of dialogue into what they say. As the director, I perceived my main task with the actors was to make sure the concepts came across and spot any moments when they start over-acting or seem to know what the person is going to say before they say it. The challenge in shooting a scene, was that we would do it a couple of times and after the first attempt they would start to know where each person was going to go with their dialogue. The normal reactions would then start to come across fake (they would almost step on each others lines). When I would see this happening I would make changes to the scene so they would have new reactions and would have no idea what each person is going to say. It also seems that every inexperienced actor has acting quirks that make them come across less then real. One actress wanted to over express her eyebrows, and another looked like she was acting when she would laugh. So I made sure those things were under control throughout the shooting.

Let’s talk about the finale and how you shot that. Never once did I not believe what I was watching, my suspension of disbelief was never broken. How did you shoot that and ensure that it all looked authentic?

We worked hard with the actors to make sure they played the scene as they would if they were really in that situation, not how an "actor" would play it. Any time they started thinking about "how would I react in this situation" while shooting it came across fake. I remember telling Kayla to get out of her head. She was thinking to much about how to play it rather than just being in it. When it came time to shoot her in the box in the dark, we turned all the lights out and I would leave her in the box for a couple hours at a time. I needed her to get frustrated, angry and claustrophobic. It usually took her about 10 minutes just to get emotionally dark enough to start shooting. I would then talk her through different scenarios. through talking, I could lead her down to even a darker place in her psyche. We did this for 3 days to get the 6 minutes of darkness.

Now, tell us a bit about yourself. What are your influences and what got you in to film?

I have always loved movies but never really thought about directly a film. Several years ago, I had written a couple high concept TV commercials that I wanted to shoot and sell. I had a director lined up to do it and at the last minute he dropped out. I already had everything booked so I had to move forward. I ended up directing it myself. It was in the middle of summer, it was hot out and it took two full days to shoot it. The final scene involved working with a ton of mud. We were racing to get the final shot before the sun went down. We got it. I remember sitting on the curb covered in mud, sun burnt, cracked lips from the sun, completely worn out and I thought to myself, "that is the most fun I have ever had". I loved the entire creative process. From that point I was hooked on wanting to do more. My producing partner Stuart Ball and I made short films to play at film festivals. We had tried to finance a film back in the 80s but the process of chasing money wore us out. So short films was a way to practice our craft without the hassle of fund raising. Last year the cost of HD and making films became reasonable enough that we decide to do our own feature.

Film school: yes or no?

I did not attend film school. My job did not give me the time to go through formal training. I had taken seminars and did a lot of reading. I wish I had taken film classes as I am sure it would have saved me some time and mistakes during the process.

What was your goal for “Meadowoods”? Was it for accolades? Were you looking to make money? Either way, did you achieve your goals? Any lessons learned that you would pass on to other filmmakers?

Our first goal was to find a distributor that saw the potential in the film. Next we were hoping horror critics might think it was ok. Beyond that we hoped to get our money back and then make some money at it. The most important one was to get a distributor. Without that you made an expensive film for yourself. We got a distributor pretty quick by today's standards, it only took a couple of months. The reaction by the horror film critics was more than we could have hoped for. As for the audience reaction, we have only just begun the distribution of the film so time will tell. We expect the public reaction to be mixed. This is the kind of film that some will love and others will hate. As for advise or lessons, learn what are hot buttons for distributors. If your film does not have those it is most likely not going anywhere. I was once told and I believe to be very true, start with marketing and work back from there. It will dictate everything you do, from story to casting to shooting.

Talk about the indie horror film fest circuit. What did you learn from it and is it something that you would recommend to other filmmakers?

The key when your film is made is to be very careful about what festival you send it to first, second, third and so on. Each festival has rules regarding if the film can be shown anywhere else first. You want to start with the top tier festivals first and then work your way down from there. Even with horror films. A lot of the big festivals, like Sundance, have horror as part of the festival but generally you have to be a premier to be accepted. Do not plan on a run at the festivals to be a few month process. It can take a couple of years. year one you go after the top festivals, year two the secondary and so on.

Talk about the process of finding distribution. If you could pass on one piece of advice to other indie filmmakers on distribution, what would that be?

The good old days where you can submit your film directly to distributors is for the most part gone (especially if you hope to see any money for it). There is so much crap out there that the distributors just do not even want to waste their time. Also they are so worried about being sued because a film they have is similar to yours, they just wont accept any unsolicited submissions. We tried that first and just kept getting the packages back saying they will not even look at it. Despite what people might say, you really do need to be represented by someone the studios and distributors have a relationship with. Especially if you want to actually see any money. But research any representatives. There are a lot out there that make money by taking on your film regardless if it ever gets distributed. The single most important advise I can give, if a Film Maker wants to get distributed is have a truly original concept that is well put together. That is truly the toughest part. Distributors do not need a low budget concept like Twilight or the next Blair Witch or Saw. I would also suggest, develop a concept that you can easily reshoot large chunks of. I have seen to many films where they get every thing put together only to find out it is all crap or big parts of it are terrible. Having spent all the money and shot it a certain way there is no way to fix it and now you just have a very expensive home movie for yourself. We kept this in mind when we decided each scene would be a continuous shot. Then if any scene did not look good on screen as I might have thought it did on the set or the story line does not read like I thought it would, I can reshoot the whole scene or even take it in a different direction. I would rewrite and add or remove scenes overnight after shooting depending on what happened that day. I also negotiated crew with extra reshoot days so I would not be cash strapped. One more thing. The bigger the distributor the more important it will be to have added features for the DVD. It is becoming expected now. Save the outtakes. We also shot two different endings just for the DVD.

Talk about the indie horror scene, where do you think it is now and where do you see it going?

It is a tough scene right now, for independent film makers in general. Video rental stores are closing and the ones left are less willing to stock those unknown films. There has to be a lot of buzz about your film to get them to buy it. They have to know or believe people will come in and want to rent it. In developing the concept of Meadowoods, we spent as much time on how the film can be marketed as we did on how we are going to make it. No one really cares how great your film is, they want to know why would anyone without seeing your movie want to rent or buy it. You may have a great looking film with an awesome story but unless it has some great way to generate a ton of buzz before anyone actually rents it, it is of no use to a distributor. A film maker really needs to learn how a distributor thinks to get any success. Monterey became interested in Meadowoods because of the many different ways buzz could be generated with it. Because we were thinking the same way, it was a great fit. They key was finding out if horror magazines and website would take to the film. Without good reviews we are dead in the water. We got incredible reviews and that with an orchestrated online campaign Meadowoods was able to get Buzz.

Where can people find out more about “Meadowoods” and/or get their hands on a copy?

What’s next for you?

A lot depends on what happens with Meadowoods. If the film gets enough reaction, a second may be in order. Otherwise we are actively searching for the next cool concept

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