Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Interview with writer/director Robert Filion

It's amazing to me that we've done something like 150 interviews with indie filmmakers. That's an unfathomable amount of insight, lessons and trials & tribulations about the indie and micro-budget film world. I've archived a few, but years have gone by since I've added more to that list. I know, I know, I've done a piss poor job, but I swear, one day... one day, I will do them all justice. Until then, guess what... you're just going to have to keep checking in or going back through our posts.

So, that got me thinking... ten years from now, I'm betting that I'll go back and look at all these and one or two of the filmmakers that we've talked to will have made it. Made it big... and hopefully they remember me. Really, there's just too much talent, too much imagination and too much spirit and drive in here, that it's impossible that someone doesn't make it. The big question is, who's it going to be? Every time I read through an interview, that thought crosses my mind. Could it be this guy? Could it be that guy? Could it be you? Maybe it's me... or maybe it's Robert Filion... who's Robert Filion? Well, let me introduce you.

Robert recently finished a short film called "Lot 66" and, quite frankly, it's a cool little piece. He's worked on quite a few different projects and he has a few things in the hopper, so I expect to see more and better things in the near future. He's obviously skilled with both the camera and the computer, as he did all the CG effects for the film. "Lot 66" is a tense thriller with some great effects and it's certainly worth checking out. I'm going to embed it right before the interview, so you can either watch it now, then read what Robert has to say about it, or read the interview, then scroll back up and check it out. Either way, check it out and check out the interview that follows.

Lot 66 ©2010 from Robert W. Filion on Vimeo.

Tell our readers a bit about "Lot 66".

Lot 66 was a sort of test short. I was curious if I could make something tense in a short running time and have it take place mostly in the light. I also wanted to give my friend Michael Melendez a good role since he’s been helping support my addiction to filmmaking for several years, and I traditionally have only tossed him police officer roles. The story is based on a game I have played with my wife in the past, but I can’t really talk too much about that since it could spoil the experience. We shot it right before Christmas 2009 over a two day weekend in Fort Mill, SC with a solid crew and small cast. The rough cut was completed within 2 days, and all of post was completed about 3 months after due to the voluminous VFX pieces required.

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

The budget was less than $300 and that bill was carried by Lee Miller, my producing partner, so he got the Executive credit on this one… thank you, Lee! Of course, there are always intangibles and favors involved in the equation which drastically impact the overall production value. For example, a local company will periodically lend me a jib for use during a weekend shoot if it’s not being rented, or the cast and crew will largely cover the cost of fuel… these things are really what make shooting possible. On this project, a friend of my family lent me a rather expensive spec home to shoot in, so the production value in that home elevated the whole piece.

The camera work was great, what did you shoot on?

Thank you, I shoot with a JVC GYHD110U in HDV 720p. I’m typically my own DP as I have yet to find someone who shoots like I need my projects shot (at the price I can afford). I’m not really a micromanager, I just have a very strong visual sensibility, and need things to look a specific way lighting wise and compositionally.

There were some great tracking and dolly shots, did you have a crane or a dolly? If not, how did you accomplish the shots?

Most of the short was shot with a 6’ Porta-Jib. It’s my hallmark tool as it’s quick to setup and maintain with a small crew – I’m saving up for my own Porta-Jib Explorer.

The effects at the end were awesome, tell us how you accomplished all the gunshot wounds and splatter.

Because of the complicated nature of shooting in a practical location, there is seldom the budget in place on my short films to do interior makeup effects work like splatter. I mean, there’s the potential of breaking things with pyro, splattering walls with fake blood, causing ants and other insects if you don’t clean all of it up properly, carpet soiling… the list goes on. On this short, all of the splatter was composited in after the shoot, to include the entry wounds. There’s no greater fun than tracking in an entry wound on an actor’s cheek as he descends backwards to the floor, or compositing splatter in a 3D space. Of course, I’m being sarcastic… it was not difficult work, but tedious and time consuming. I live for the completed piece, not the imminent work caused by my over-exertive nature.

At any rate, there were additional effects shots perhaps not immediately obvious… I had to create a digital version of the house and modify the windows a bit for some exterior dolly shots as I cannot afford the equipment to pull this level of shooting off practically. So one of these shots involved me creating and animating a thunderstorm and hundreds of trees as I pull out of a second story window and descend into the forest. A neat shot, and I could have spent even more countless hours perfecting it further, but I set goals for myself so I can complete work; I don’t like working on the same short for years as some of my peers do. In yet another instance of VFX work, I had to create a basic prison environment… a sort of mental confinement for our protagonist. In this digital set, I had another dolly out through bars as his mental demons were frolicking about in front of spot lights so as to pique his terror. This was something I had not created to this complexity prior, and I found the bitter limits of After Effects, I can tell you.

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

I have been a filmmaker since childhood, and have always wanted to direct for the big screen. I was born in National City, CA, and as we were a military family, moved several times until I found my way on my own in Rock Hill, SC (just outside of Charlotte, NC). I have been building myself in this area since the late 80’s. The Army put me partially through college with the GI Bill, and upon graduation, I went for 5 years working as a wedding videographer, stage hand, editor and news videographer… just experiencing the whole freelance landscape. Around 1999, I began to really push myself out as a filmmaker. Now, I have never made enough money at what I’m passionate about to do it full time, so I have always held down a full time day job as either a computer technician, web designer or freelance video professional. With all this on me, I still seem to get work out and finished in a fairly slim amount of time. As for what or who inspired me, I’d have to say my late mother greatly inspired me. She was a multifaceted artist, and gave me appreciation for the arts. In respect to filmmakers who have influenced me, I’d have to say George Romero, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson and Danny Boyle.

Film school: yes or no?

Kind of, but not really. I have a degree in television production, and always wanted to make motion pictures. I decided I couldn’t afford film school, so went with its less creative cousin. That did help, but I’ve spent years getting out from under that mindset. I would never shoot a news segment like I shoot a short film. It seems obvious, but once you learn a certain style, and have it ingrained in your psyche, it’s difficult to get out of that box. I had to teach myself to pull out from my subject and not fill my frame up with over-information, and that negative space was a good thing.

Talk about your goals behind making “Lot 66” and your other short films. Is it for accolades, for a reel, for festivals? Did you accomplish your goals?

Everything I do is a step toward making a feature film. The shorts I have been making have been honing my skills and the skills of my casts and crew and getting our names out there. The misstep I always seem to make is that I never allocate enough money toward more festivals… they’re expensive, and you have to choose carefully if your budget is $0. Festivals largely don’t seem to care about that as it’s difficult to get feedback from them if you don’t make the cut, and if you do (get feedback), it’s sometimes as though the reviewers didn’t actually watch your short, but enough with the rant. My thought on any of these short films is to get a quality product out there that everyone can be pleased with. Nothing is worse when you freely invest your time in something than the work falling short of quality… that negates what we’re supposedly pushing for as filmmakers. Success cannot be measured at this point, however, I can say I’m making strides toward my goals... like an inchworm moving a mile. As for the brass ring, nobody has given me a real shot yet… I suppose some of my work is about just that – you won’t give me a shot, well, how about I, or we give me or us a shot with our own resources, and when we’re further in this life, you’ll be kicking yourself for not wanting to help when we needed you. I don’t even know if that makes sense to anybody but me. I hope so.

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

Well, gone are the days of pioneering filmmakers like George Romero, John Carpenter and Wes Craven. These guys by today’s standard had it easy because there was so little quality competition doing what they were doing. Now, “Hollywood” has been so inundated by poor quality, redundancy, internet garbage, etc. that they have all but closed all doors to the indie market. Getting in is only by force majeure. The only thing I can see to do since I’m so far removed from “the system” is to keep putting out solid work and hope that someone notices. I try to attend conventions to meet people and get stuff seen, but so far, there has been little movement. This all sounds bleak, but there are opportunities. I can see private investment in my projects as possible as I can compete with the bigger guys with even fewer resources. Also, the internet is a powerful ally, and there are websites setup to give assistance to the indies. OpenFilm, Vimeo, and YouTube are integral pieces of the puzzle, and I feel are the sites viewers will be going for years to come for entertainment.

Where can people check your films out?, and

What’s next for you?

I’m currently wrapping up a short film I shot for the Halloween Horror Nights 2010 Competition called “The Promise Jar”, and have 3 feature scripts ready to go. Two from novelist Michael Louis Calvillo, and one from Chad Law and Evan Law called Abominations (I just finished shooting a teaser for investors for this one). I’m also currently attached as Co-Director on a feature called Ghost Trek. Lots going on, hopefully something sticks and we can all move forward with bigger gigs.

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