I learned a lot making HUNGER, my first feature-length movie. One of those things is that the term feature-length is technical and refers to a movie of 60+ minutes (preferably between 80-120 minutes for festivals/distributors). But, before I get into all that, lets start at the beginning.
I’d been writing scripts for years before I tried to write something for myself, so I had the basics of how to write. The first issue I faced, and one that I actually found creatively fulfilling, was writing within the limitations of what I had access to. All my previous scripts were limited only by my imagination, but when I had to pay/beg/barter for everything I was going to show, it really made me rethink a lot. And, I think the story was much better because of it.
So, I guess I should back up a bit more. In order to make my movie, I had to have an idea, something I could make, something I could afford. No blood, no explosions, no high-speed car chases and no big-budget actors. The premise I came up with, the pitch was: “An out-of-work actor pretends to go on a hunger strike and keeps a video blog of it on youtube.”
From that, I knew I needed an actor and his house (my apartment). I also thought he might need someone to do his make-up (a theater major from the local university (possible love interest)). That’s plot right there. So, the actor’s got a friend. The theater major has a friend, and she lives on campus. The script pretty much wrote itself in about four months.
Now, fortunately, I had attended the local university and had a pretty good relationship with the theater department (having been a part of a summer drama tour). So, I went to the head of the drama department and let her know what I wanted. She was more than happy to give me access to any of her students who were interested, and use of anything that was available.
As I was to find out, the main gate-keeper of the university happened to be the mom of one of my good friends. So, she helped me out too. I got basically free reign at the University, class-rooms (including one which I used for casting), the campus, the University theater, and the biggie, the dorms. All for a very reasonable fee (which ended up being so small the university found the legal discussion over rights more than it was worth, so the whole thing was free). The fact that I cast a bunch of the University’s students made it all the sweeter for them.
I originally planned to shoot the movie on a Canon HV40 which is basically a Handycam that spits out 720p. But, it gives basically no control over the focus or exposure. And, it connected via Firewire, which my Macbook didn’t have. I had a system where it would have worked, but it would have been a serious hassle. I was also planning to use the brand-new-at-the-time iPhone 3Gs, for the video blog portions.
It just so happened that a few months before we shot our first scene, the Canon T2i came out. (If you’re a filmmaker and you haven’t yet heard of the DSLR revolution, stop reading now, open a new tab in your browser and google it. Or just go to www.philipbloom.com and start reading.) I sold the HV40 and the tapes and bought the T2i (now $600). I borrowed a Canon 24-105 (borrowed) lens from a friend. That combine with the kit lens and I was ready to get video.
For audio, I bought the Zoom H4n (now $229) and an Audio-Technic AT-897 (now $259), which I usually either hand-held or attached to a vocal boom mic stand. I used a borrowed pair of AKG headphones to monitor.
Most of the cast came from the University. Oddly, not a single guy tried out, but that was fine since I only really needed to males to actually appear on screen. All the women were professional and surprisingly good for how little experience they’d had (none actually doing video). Paige Murray was brilliant as the make-up artist, making nuanced choices throughout that really took my breath away.
One of my good friends Henry Truong has been acting in movies and on TV for a long time, so he was a shoe-in for the lead male. The other Brian Guerrero was recommended by a friend and I couldn’t have been happier with his performance. Two other friends, both with voice-acting experience had already agreed to do it.
Shooting came off without a single complication, except for the last day, where there was a bit of a scheduling conflict. But, with a lot of hard work from everyone, we shot nearly 15 pages of the script in about 6 hours. Granted, it was all a single location, but it worked.
The real issue, and one I don’t intend to repeat was scheduling. Since I wasn’t paying any of the actors (we all needed a reel so…) I had to work around their work/school schedules. It made planning when shooting times were possible very difficult. But, as I said, it worked out.
I’d like to note here is really one of logistics. There were over 120 scenes, each of which had multiple angles, and each of those had multiple takes. Keeping track of the different take could have been a nightmare. But, with a little pre-planning and a really big Excel sheet, it was manageable. I came up with a naming scheme that might help, I know I’ll be using it again. It went, audio/video scene number – shot number – take number. So, my filenames ended up looking like V-105-4-2.mov. It’s simple, clear and easily organizable. Of course, it would have been helpful to have someone on set to remember the good takes, but such is indie film.
The final thing is, each scene took so much time and pre-planning, that losing data wasn’t an option. Each night, after the shoot, I would back-up the video to three different hard drives. At the end of each week, I would store two of the drives at my studio (spare-room) and take the third drive to a friend’s house. Any of the three could crash and I’d still be in pretty good shape.
I had a Macbook (now $1,200) and had bought Final Cut Studio (Use Adobe Production Premium Suite instead; FCPX is a disaster), which I’d been using to edit some commercials for a producer friend, so I had the edit suite (which means post-production costs were $0).
I finished my first edit in two days (with temp music). I showed it to Paige and her friends and they all loved it. It took another 3 months to get it where I wanted it. The movie really came together when Troy Born wrote a single piece (off of which I composed the rest of the score). If I ever get to work with Troy again, I’ll consider myself very fortunate.
Everyone who has seen it likes it. Is it perfect? No. Could I do better now? Yes. But, for a first feature, everyone liking it’s pretty darn good.
The movie’s title is HUNGER and we’re currently seeking distribution.
Check out Jonathan’s Film Courage article ‘A GROWING CITY: A CASE STUDY – THE SCRIPT’ here.
Photos from the November 2011 Film Courage Interactive where we screened Jonathan Schiefer’s short FIDELIS.
Filmmaker Jonathan Schiefer shares with us some of the challenges he was able to overcome in making his first feature film ‘Hunger’ along with the lessons he learned along the way.
Filmmaker Jonathan Schiefer tells us about his commitment to filmmaking along with his thoughts on taking big risks in order to make reach his dreams.