The Limelight Index: Vincent Grashaw – Writer/Director

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Vincent Grashaw is a filmmaker from LA who recently completed directing his successful debut feature film Coldwater. Here, we talk about how he got there, the film and his plans for the future.

When did you first become interested in filmmaking?

I started out in junior high, 1994. This was more or less the beginning of the impressionable years, where you’d absorb all of an artist’s work – for me this was movies. From 14 to 18, a lot of the movies I watched really had an effect on me even if they weren’t necessarily the best movies. I was young and used to ‘hack’ projects that’d I’d seen, using similar elements, pulling stuff from it for my own scripts. Sometimes you even do it subconsciously. So at some point you stop hacking films you love and start to come up with your own film aesthetics, style, and vision. So I suppose it was never a bad thing because I knew the creative wheels were turning and that film was something I really wanted to do. It was my schooling process since I never went to college. The movies I watched at that time molded the kinds I want to make and who I am as a filmmaker.

What kind of films do you like to watch?

I have so many different movies I like to watch, the ones I can watch over and over are completely different to my favourite movies. For example, I could watch What About Bob, The Witches, Stand By Me or The Big Lebowski over and over. These movies I connected within and they are comforting and humoring, however these are very different to what films I actually make.

Am I right in thinking your movies lend themselves to violence?

Yeah, I tend to gravitate towards the darker subjects in movies. I have a couple of movies to make that aren’t violent in the pipeline that I intend to make.  I’m not harnessing myself to just one genre.

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What’s your opinion on directors who stick to one genre?

It depends on the director.  If a filmmaker only makes horror films then that’s their thing, I don’t have a problem with that at all. Filmmaking is such a personal thing that it has to be relevant to the filmmaker… it’s a huge release as an artist.

You acted in and produced in one of last years acclaimed indie movies ‘Bellflower’, how did you get involved with this?

Evan Glodlell, the director, is a good friend of mine and we used to make short films together. The film was a very long process; Evan had been working on the script for a while. We shot the movie in 2008 on a tiny budget. Initially, we weren’t sure how to proceed, but we had a little bit of money and just went for it.  We became obsessed with getting things done, at ALL costs. We did many things, most illegal to make that happen.  The only reason I was acting in it was because he couldn’t find anyone to play the role, and we’d acted in each other’s shorts, so I just did it.

Are your short films online anywhere?

Its funny, once Bellflower got into Sundance, we pretty much took all our stuff off the net. We used to make ridiculous stuff, it was outrageous and weird, and we didn’t want it out there! One day, some of it might be re-released, maybe through a compilation Dvd.

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When did ‘Coldwater’ become a reality?

I had the project on my plate throughout my entire 20’s. I had a loose connection to a kid who was abducted one night, so this was where the idea originally came from. However, it wasn’t until several times trying to get the film made that it came through.  Trying to make the film was basically my film school; I’d meet lots of different types of producers, some who were absolute weasels, playing wannabes, and some who were just in over their head. It’s definitely better it wasn’t made back then because over 13 years I learned a lot more about the reality behind the movie as well, which lends to its credibility. All these elements combined drove the film into what it is today.

What is your take on crowdfunding for indie filmmakers?

I just produced a movie in September with the guys who I made Bellflower with. It’s a gritty, turf-war action movie; we crowdfunded this film using Indiegogo and raised about $180,000. We then partnered with a couple of production companies who funded the rest. So, crowdfunding was great for this movie because we obtained a following with Bellflower, so it was a great way to get things going.

Are there any other projects in the works for you?

I recently acquired a script for the next feature I will be directing, which is a psychological horror movie.  I’m very excited about this. We are currently aiming to shoot around spring/summer 2014.

Any release dates planned yet?

In some cases, in the indie world you don’t really know where your going to be until you do it. It’s not like the studio system where you can set dates years in advance. We’ll take the film to a festival and it will hopefully sell there, unless we presale the movie because of the actors I attach.

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What’s your favourite thing about filmmaking? 

All the drama and bullshit that coincides with filmmaking really has nothing to do with it. There’s a key relationship with everyone involved, it’s like being family. You come together for a period in your life and then it’s all over and you get a new family. Filmmaking is so much fun and, for me, actually a very peaceful experience. It’s a very collaborative art, even though at the end of the day the director has to make the ultimate decision. It is a very fun process, I mean why else would I be doing this? It’s not like we’re all getting fat and foolish from all the money we’re making!

Any advice for filmmakers starting out?  

There’s a lot of advice I could give, but I have a couple of main things. Always stay humble, there will be a lot of things you’re married to in your script, but things will evolve and you’ll have to accept changes. Being open to this process is very important; nothing will be exactly as you pictured it in your head. Basically I am saying that your project evolves into many forms throughout the process and instead of fighting it, embrace it and see what transpires.

Secondly, don’t look at the business as a competitive thing. It can appear so competitive on the surface, which is overwhelming.  Don’t let that affect anything because at the end of the day it’s just you and your film.  People will try and knock you down, tell you that you’re doing something wrong, or unconventional. Before everything took off for me, the month before Bellflower took off, I think we were all in the darkest phase because we were getting all of this negative energy and feedback from people we should’ve never been listening to in the first place. So find a group of people you can trust with your material for honest criticism. Potentially from other artists who are relevant to what you’re trying to say; no one knows your material better than you.

Check out the trailer for Coldwater below:

Visit the movies website.

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The Limelight Index: Mark Tapio Kines – Writer/Director

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Mark Tapio Kines (above) has made 2 feature films and a number of shorts. He has also worked as a web designer for Paramount Pictures and is currently hosting a screenwriting course on lynda.com. I got the chance to chat to Mark about his filmmaking career and what we can expect in the near future:

When did you first get interested in filmmaking?

I was probably about 16 or 17. At first, I was interested in animation; one of my friends had asked me to join him on an animation course, which was a lot of fun. However, he also had a super 8 camera, so we played around with that too.

The following year, I got hold of a video camera in my German class. My classmates and I wrote a script – a kind of spoof on these old ‘60s German training films. This was the first bit of live-action shooting I ever did. It was the point when I really realized I want to do this for the rest of my life – but more importantly, that I can do this.

You’ve now made 2 features and a number of shorts. Regarding your first feature, Foreign Correspondents, how did the idea originate?

It’s a two-story film. The first story I’d had in mind for several years, which was all about what happens if you find a letter in your mailbox meant for the previous tenant. I was obsessed with the concept that you can’t open a letter, but you can look at a postcard, so what happens if you find a postcard that happens to have something very passionate written on it? So, the story came from this relationship between two strangers who live on opposite sides of the world. This came out as a 40 to 50-page script, which I knew wouldn’t be commercially viable.

I therefore decided to pair this script with another story that had similar themes of pen pals and such, which was actually based on a personal experience. I had a friend who lived in London; she was an au pair from Yugoslavia and working for this wealthy London family. They flew me out to discuss marrying her so that she would not have to go back to her homeland. The real story was just so beyond belief that I actually had to fictionalize it a bit to make it believable. For the film, I changed it to a British character coming over to California. It was cheaper to shoot it this way!

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You are the first person to ever raise funds for a film online. Did you have high hopes or was this a last resort for the film? 

It was sort of a last resort. At the time I thought to myself, if it’s going to take ten years to raise the money via my day job, then I’ll do it just to get it finished. I hate having unfinished films, especially if you’ve already spent 100,000 dollars on it. I made the website hoping that the word would get out there – at this time there was no crowdfunding, no established sites like Kickstarter, etc. It was pure marketing and self-promotion. A lot of the money I received was actually investments – not like today, where money is literally given away. This would’ve been unheard of back then!

The crowdfunding got me some press at the time, but since no one did it right after me, it sort of vanished from the radar. No one was talking about it. I’d even forgotten about my connection to it myself, until recently, with all this buzz around crowdfunding platforms. I realized: ‘Oh wait, was I really the first person to do this?’ So I looked at the Wikipedia article for crowdfunding, and it said that the first film ever crowdfunded was a 2004 picture. Not true! I beat this by six years! I now ‘claim my crown’.

What’s your opinion about platforms like Indiegogo and Kickstarter?

They are useful for filmmakers. I help out a few friends raising funds, which is my way of giving back. I have this third feature film ready to shoot now, which I wrote the script for several years ago. So, I’m thinking about going back to this financing method for the film.

Can you give away any more details about this new project?

It’s called Dial 9 to Get Out. It’s another thriller in the same vein as my second feature, Claustrophobia. So many years have passed. I feel I’m a better filmmaker, and technology has progressed, so I’m really excited about this. There have been a couple of close calls getting funded through the traditional roots of production companies. They fell apart, like it often does in Hollywood. But after my most recent run in, I thought, why not just try it independently? So in February, I’m thinking about independently starting this project up. I’ve been doing a lot of networking, plotting out strategies, but who knows what might happen.

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Are your stories personal to you?

All my stories are personal to me in one way or another. One of the stories in Foreign Correspondents was very personal and Claustrophobia was based around the essence of a dream I had as a teenager. Ideas will often just pop up here or there, but it can take years for the actual idea to gel into a good storyline. In the meantime, if I get an idea, I’ll write it down and then later I may come across it and have the answer.

Are there any filmmakers in particular who have influenced you?

Influence is always a hard word. When you ask this, it always makes it sound like: ‘Whom did you copy?’ Filmmakers that I like – ones I’m rarely disappointed by – include Zhang Yimou, best known for films like House of Flying Daggers and Hero. These are slick martial arts films, but I like him more for his dramas like Shanghai Triad, which are very well plotted and executed. There are many others, but Alfred Hitchcock is probably my all time favourite.

It’s hard though, to find filmmakers in today’s cinema with a really pronounced style. Chan-wook Park is one I can think of. Stoker is a rare example of a mediocre script being elevated by great direction. Usually a director can’t save a mediocre script, but Park is so idiosyncratic and odd that what he brought to the camera was far more interesting than the pedestrian script. I always get excited about his stuff.

What’s your favourite thing about filmmaking?

Editing. I love editing. You get such immediate results. You can instantly see whether a cut works or not, and when it does, it’s beautiful. With writing, you’re always thinking, ‘This is just the beginning’, which is always far more stressful and time constricting. Seeing a film come together in the editing room is the best and most satisfying part. Production is, of course, great fun, but also very stressful. I’ve been doing a lot of short films recently to get stuff produced with little stress and, ultimately, get more stories told.

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Any advice for young filmmakers today?

Learn how to tell a good story. This sounds like a no-brainer. But everybody today seems to be avoiding story and focusing on technology. I would love it if people could really take the time to craft suspenseful stories. By this I mean, anything where the goal should be having your audience ask what’s happening next – a ‘page turner’, as they say in literature. There’s no similar term for this in cinema. Maybe ‘bladder stretcher’?

Thanks Mark.

It was a pleasure to interview such a friendly guy with a warm heart for cinema. There is a lot of useful content here for writers and directors; I like how Mark takes us back to basics suggesting that we shouldn’t get sidetracked by technology and focus primarily on our stories. Do that extra draft of your screenplay or look up the new iPhone app for filmmakers?

Visit Mark’s website here.

The Limelight Index: Kevin Slack – Writer/Director

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Above is Kevin Slack, a filmmaker whose latest short film was selected by Ridley Scott and Michael Fassbender to screen at Venice Film Festival. I caught up with Kevin who tells me how he got started out in film, where the future lies and that you should always “keep shooting.”

Hi Kevin, when did you first get into filmmaking?

I first started making movies in high school with my best friend.  These were mainly “Jackass” inspired sketches that nobody laughed at but us.  Then in my high school video class I had to recreate a scene from Scarface and I completely fell in love with filmmaking.  After that, my best friend and I wrote and shot a feature film one summer and the rest is history. That feature film will never be seen by another soul though, it’s horrible.

Did you always want to be a director?

As soon as I realized that “being a director” was actually something people did then yes.  I didn’t know that was really a job until I was at the end of my high school career.  Up until then, I just thought movies were kind of magically made without knowing how.  I also love editing and operating camera, but I have always wanted to be the director on a project, the main creative source.

Who are your influences?

Unfortunately I have a horrible memory, so I don’t have the backlog of knowledge that a guy like Scorsese has.  I tend to be influenced by more modern filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson, Steve McQueen, David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, the Coen Brothers, Spike Jonze, Nicolas Winding Refn, David O Russell etc.  However I find myself referencing the greats like Hitchcock, Robert Altman, Kubrick, Spielberg a lot to.  I’m really influenced by the painter Edward Hopper.  I’m always going back to his work at the beginning of my projects. I’d also like to mention that these guys are more inspiration than an influence.  I do my best not to imitate, no matter how inevitable it is to do something others have already done.  I try to be inspired by those filmmakers and use their work as motivation to create something beautiful.

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Your short film, The Drought, has been widely successful, how did this project start?

That project was born really organically in my apartment.  I saw a news reporter interviewing an umbrella salesman in Manhattan and that night I had a rough draft done.  It all just happened so quick and so easy.  That film was really a blessing because it brought me on such an amazing journey all the way to Venice, Italy where it screened for Michael Fassbender and Ridley Scott.  It aired on PBS, played at numerous film festivals and has around 100,000 views online.  That film is still my favorite project I’ve done and the most fun I’ve had making a film to date.

What’s your take on online distribution platforms?

Part of me is a total traditionalist where I believe every movie should be seen on a big screen in a dark room with strangers projected on film.  I don’t think any setting can replicate how magical that situation is.  I still try to go to the cinema every Sunday, even by myself to see a film.  I was a projectionist for a while in college as well, so I really have a place in my heart for it.  However, the majority of people are seeing content online or on demand in some way now.  It’s great for smaller films that don’t have the funds to do a traditional marketing campaign.  It’s really expensive and risky to do a theatrical run for films.  Take a guy like Ed Burns who makes his movie for a few thousand dollars and then puts it right on iTunes.  He always makes his money back and then some.  It works really well for some filmmakers.  I think it gives a voice to some films and filmmakers that otherwise wouldn’t have been seen.  I like to think when I make a feature that it will be in the theatres, but when it comes down to it, I’m just thrilled to get eyes on something I make.

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Can we expect any big projects in the works?

Right now I am writing a feature, directing a comedic short next month and always writing treatments for music videos and commercials.  Nothing too big that I can talk about right now, but you’ll be hearing from me!

What’s your favourite thing about filmmaking?

My favorite part of filmmaking is the collaborative process between myself and the cast and crew.  It’s a really special environment that is hard to describe to people that haven’t been through it.  Even just being on set with people for four days can create this magical bond that is really sad to let go of when the shoot is over.  In terms of specific parts of the process I love being on set directing and then editing.  If it was up to me, I’d write the script and 2 days later I’d be on set shooting.

Any parting advice on the craft and, or, industry?

Keep shooting.  The best way to learn is to make some seriously bad mistakes.  It’s a good thing to make bad movies at first.  Also just watch as many films as you can.  Try to constantly surround yourself with people more talented and experienced than you on set.  That way when they come up with an amazing idea, you’ll get the credit for it.

Watch The Drought below:

Kevin’s website.