Tag Archives: Directing

Roundtable: Director Autumn McAlpin and her Miss Arizona post team

By Randi Altman

The independent feature film Miss Arizona is a sort of fish out of water tale that focuses on Rose Raynes, former beauty queen and current bored wife and mother who accepts an invitation to teach a life skills class at a women’s shelter. As you might imagine, the four women who she meets there don’t feel they have much in common. While Rose is “teaching,” the women are told that one of their abusers is on his way to the shelter. The women escape and set out on an all-night adventure through LA and, ultimately, to a club where the women enter Rose into a drag queen beauty pageant — and, of course, along the way they form a bond that changes them all.

L-R: Camera operator Eitan Almagor, DP Jordan McKittrick and Autumn McAlpin.

Autumn McAlpin wrote and directed the film, which has been making its way through the film festival circuit. She hired a crew made up of 70 percent women to help tell this tale of female empowerment. We reached out to her, her colorist Mars Williamson and her visual effects/finishing artist John Davidson to find out more.

Why did you choose the Alexa Mini? And why did you shoot mostly handheld?
Autumn McAlpin: The Alexa Mini was the first choice of our DP Jordan McKittrick, with whom I frequently collaborate. We were lucky enough to be able to score two Alexa Mini cameras on this shoot, which really helped us achieve the coverage needed for an ensemble piece in which five-plus key actors were in almost every shot. We love the image quality and dynamic range of the Alexas, and the compact and lightweight nature of the Mini helped us achieve an aggressive shooting schedule in just 14 days.

We felt handheld would achieve the intimate yet at times erratic look we were going for following an ensemble of five women from very different backgrounds who were learning to get along while trying to survive. We wanted the audience to feel as if they were going on the journey along with the women, and thus felt handheld would be a wise approach to accomplish this goal.

How early did post — edit, color — get involved?
McAlpin: We met with our editor Carmen Morrow before the shoot, and she and her assistant editor Dustin Fleischmann were integral in delivering a completed rough cut just five weeks after we wrapped. We needed to make key festival deadlines. Each day Dustin would drive footage from set over to Carmen’s bay, where she could assemble while we were shooting so we could make sure we weren’t missing anything crucial. This was amazing, as we’d often be able to see a rough assembly of a scene we had shot in the morning by the end of day. They cut on Avid Media Composer.

My DP Jordan and I agreed on the overall look of the film and how we wanted the color to feel rich and saturated. We were really excited about what we saw in our colorist’s reel. We didn’t meet our colorist Mars Williamson until after we had wrapped production. Mars had moved from LA to Melbourne, so we knew we wouldn’t be able to work in close quarters, but we were confident we’d be able to accomplish the desired workflow in the time needed. Mars was extremely flexible to work with.

Can you talk more about the look of the film.
McAlpin: Due to the nature of our film, we sought to create a rich, saturated look color wise. Our film follows a former pageant queen on an all-night adventure through LA with four unlikely friends she meets at a women’s shelter. In a way, we tried to channel an Oz-like world as our ensemble embarks into the unknown. We deliberately used color to represent the various realities the women inhabit. In the film’s open, our production design (by Gabriel Gonzales) and wardrobe (by Cat Velosa) helped achieve a stark, cold world — filled with blues and whites — to represent our protagonist Rose’s loneliness.

As Rose moves into the shelter, we went with warmer tones and a more eclectic production design. A good portion of Act II takes place in a drag club, which we asked Gabe to design to be rich and vibrant, using reds and purples. Toward the end of the film as Rose finds resolution, we went with more naturalistic lighting, primarily outdoor shots and golden hues. Before production, Jordan and I pulled stills from films such as Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Black Swan and Short Term 12, which provided strong templates for the looks we were trying to achieve.

Is there a particular scene or look that stands out for you?
McAlpin: There is a scene when our lead Rose (Johanna Braddy) performs a ventriloquist act onstage with a puppet and they sing Shania Twain’s “Man, I Feel Like a Woman.”  Both Rose and the puppet wore matching cowgirl wardrobe and braids, and this scene was lit to be particularly vibrant with hot pinks and purples. I remember watching the monitors on set and feeling like we had really nailed the rich, saturated look we were going for in this offbeat pageant world we had created.

L-R: Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Shoniqua Shandai, producer De Cooper, Johanna Brady, Autumn McAlpin, Otmara Marrero and Robyn Lively.

Can you talk about the workflow from set to post?
McAlpin: As a low-budget indie, many of our team work from home offices, which made collaboration friendly and flexible. For the four months following production, I floated between the workspaces of our talented and efficient editor Carmen Morrow, brilliant composer Nami Melumad, dedicated sound designer Yu-Ting Su, VFX and online extraordinaire John Davidson, and we used Frame.io to work with our amazing colorist Mars Williamson. Everyone worked so hard to help achieve our vision in our timeframe. Using Frame.io and Box helped immensely with file delivery, and I remember many careful drives around LA, toting our two RAID drives between departments. Postmates food delivery service helped us power through! Everyone worked hard together to deliver the final product, and for that I’m so grateful.

Can you talk about the type of film you were trying to make, and did it turn out as you hoped?
McAlpin: I volunteered in a women’s shelter for several years teaching a life skills class, and this was an experience that introduced me to strong, vibrant women whose stories I longed to tell. I wrote this script very quickly, in just three weeks, though really, the story seemed to write itself. It was the fall of 2016, at a time where I was agitated by the way women were being portrayed in the media. This was shortly before the #metoo movement, and during the election and women’s march. The time felt right to tell a story about women and other marginalized groups coming together to help each other find their voices and a safe community in a rapidly divisive world.

I’m not going to lie, with our budget, all facets of production and post were quite challenging, but I was so overwhelmed by the fastidious efforts of everyone on our team to create something powerful. I feel we were all aligned in vision, which kept everyone fueled to create a finished product I am very proud of. The crowning moment of the experience was after our world premiere at Geena Davis’ Bentonville Film Fest, when a few women from the audience approached and confided that they, too, had lived in shelters and felt our film spoke to the truths they had experienced. This certainly made the whole process worthwhile.

Autumn, you wrote as well as directed. Did the story change or evolve once you started shooting or did you stick to the original script?
McAlpin: As a director who is very open to improv and creative play on set, I was quite surprised by how little we deviated from the script. Conceptually, we stuck to the story as written. We did have a few actors who definitely punched up scenes by making certain lines more their own (and much more humorous, i.e. the drag queens). And there were moments when location challenges forced last-minute rewrites, but hey, I guess that’s one advantage to having the writer in the director’s chair! This story seemed to flow from the moment it first arrived in my head, telling me what it wanted to be, so we kind of just trusted that, and I think we achieved our narrative goals.

You used a 70 percent female crew. Can you talk about why that was important to you?
McAlpin: For this film, our producer DeAnna Cooper and I wanted to flip the traditional gender ratios found on sets, as ours was indeed a story rooted in female empowerment. We wanted our set to feel like a compatible, safe environment for characters seeking safety and trusted female friendships. So many of the cast and crew who joined our team expressed delight in joining a largely female team, and I think/hope we created a safe space for all to create!

Also, as women, we tend to get each other — and there were times when those on our production team (all mothers) were able to support each other’s familial needs when emergencies at home arose. We also want to give a shout-out to the numerous woman-supporting men we had on our team, who were equally wonderful to work with!

What was everyone’s favorite scene and why?
McAlpin: There’s a moment when Rose has a candid conversation with a drag queen performer named Luscious (played by Johnathan Wallace) in a green room during which each opens up about who they are and how they got there. Ours is a fish out of water story as Rose tries to achieve her goal in a world quite new to her, but in this scene, two very different people bond in a sincere and heartfelt way. The performances in this scene were just dynamite, thanks to the talents of Johanna and Johnathan. We are frequently told this scene really affects viewers and changes perspectives.

I also have a personal favorite moment toward the end of the film in which a circle of women from very different backgrounds come together to help out a character named Leslie, played by the dynamic Robyn Lively, who is searching for her kids. One of the women helping Leslie says, “I’m a mama, too,” and I love the strength felt in this group hug moment as the village comes together to defend each other.

If you all had to do it again, what would you do differently?
McAlpin: This was one fast-moving train, and I know, as is the case in every film, there are little shots or scenes we’d all love to tweak just a little if given the chance to start over from scratch. But at this point, we are focusing on the positives and what lies in store for Miss Arizona. Since our Bentonville premiere and LA premiere at Dances With Films, we have been thrilled to receive numerous distribution offers, and it’s looking like a fall worldwide release may be in store. We look forward to connecting with audiences everywhere as we share the message of this film.

Mars Williamson

Mars, can you talk about your process and how you worked with the team? 
Williamson: Autumn put us in touch, and John and I touched based a little bit before I was going to start color. We all had a pretty good idea of where we were taking it from the offline and discussed little tweaks here and there, so it was fairly straightforward. There were a couple of things like changing a wall color and the last scene needing more sunset than was shot. Autumn and John are super easy and great to work with. We found out pretty early that we’d be able to collaborate pretty easily since John has DaVinci Resolve on his end in the states as well.  I moved to Melbourne permanently right before I really got into the grade.

Unbeknownst to me, Melbourne was/is in the process of upgrading their Internet, which is currently painfully slow. We did a couple of reviews via Frame.io and eventually moved to me just emailing John my project. He could relink to the media on his end and all of my color grading would come across for sessions in LA with Autumn. It was the best solution to contend with the snail pace uploads of large files. From there it was just going through it reel by reel and getting notes from the stateside team. I couldn’t have worked on this with a better group of people.

What types of projects do you work on most often?
Williamson: My bread and butter has always been TV commercials, but I’ve worked hard to make sure I work on all sort of formats across different genres. I like to make sure I’ve got a wide range of stuff under my belt. The pool is smaller here in Australia than it is in LA (where I moved from) so TV commercials are still the bill payers, but I’m also still dipping into the indie scene here and trying to diversify what I work on. Still working on a lot of indie projects and music videos from the states as well so thank you stateside clients! Thankfully the difference in time hasn’t hindered most of them (smiles). It has led to an all-nighter here and there for me, but I’m happy to lose sleep for the right projects.

How did you work with the DP and director on the look of the film? What look did you want and how did you work to achieve that look or looks?
John Davidson: Magic Feather is a production company and creative agency that I started back in 2004. We provide theatrical marketing and creative services for a wide variety of productions. From the 3D atomic transitions in Big Bang Theory to the recent Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom week-long event on Discovery, we have a pretty great body of work. I came onboard Miss Arizona very much by accident. Last year, after working with Weta in New Zealand, we moved to Laguna Niguel and connected with Autumn and her husband Michael via some mutual friends. I was intrigued that they had just finished shooting this movie on their own and offered to replace a few license plates and a billboard. Somehow I turned that into coordinating the post-Avid workflow across the planet and creating 100-plus visual effects shots. It was a fantastic opportunity to use every tool in our arsenal to help a film with a nice message and a family we have come to adore.

John Davidson

Working with Jordan and Autumn for VFX and final mastering was educational for all of us, but definitely so with me. As I mentioned to Jordan after the showing in Hollywood, if I did my job right you would never know. There were quite a few late nights, but I think that they are both very happy with the results.

John, I understand there were some challenges in the edit? Relinking the camera source footage? Can you talk about that and how you worked around it?
Davidson: The original Avid cut was edited off of the dailies at 1080p with embedded audio. The masters were 3.2k Arri Alexa Mini Log with no sync sound. There were timecode issues the first few days on set and because Mars was using DaVinci Resolve to color, we knew we had to get the footage from Avid to Resolve somehow. Once we got the footage into DaVinci via AAF, I realized it was going to be a challenge relinking sources from the dailies. Resolve was quite the utility knife, and after a bit of tweaking we were able to get the silent master video clips linked up. Because 12TB drives are expensive, we thought it best to trim media to 48-frame handles and ship a smaller drive to Australia for Mars to work with. With Mars’s direction we were able to get that handled and shipped.

While Mars was coloring in Australia, I went back into the sources and began the process of relinking the original separate audio to the video sources because I needed to be able to adjust/re-edit a few scenes that had technical issues we couldn’t fix with VFX. Resolve was fantastic here again. Any clip that couldn’t be automatically linked via timecode was connected with clap marks using the waveform. For safety, I batch-exported all of the footage out with embedded audio and then relinked the film to that. This was important for archival purposes as well as any potential fixes we might have to do before the film delivered.

At this point Mars was sharing her cuts on Frame.io with Jordan and Autumn. I felt like a little green shift was being introduced over H.264 so we would occasionally meet here to review a relinked XML that Mars would send for a full quality inspection. For VFX we used Adobe After Effects and worked in flat color. We then would upload shots to box.com for Mars to incorporate into her edit. There were also two re-cut scenes that were done this way as well which was a challenge because any changes had to be shared with the audio teams who were actively scoring and mixing.

Once Mars was done we put the final movie together here, and I spent about two weeks working on it. At this point I took the film from Resolve to FCP X. Because we were mastering at 1080p, we had the full 3.2K frame for flexibility. Using a 1080p timeline in FCP X, the first order of business was making final on-site color adjustments with Autumn.

Can you talk about the visual effects provided?
Davidson: For VFX, we focused on things like the license plates and billboards, but also took a bit of initiative and reviewed the whole movie for areas we could help. Like everyone else, I loved the look of the stage and club scenes, but wanted to add just a little flare to the backlights so the LED grids would be less visible. This was done in Final Cut Pro X using the MotionVFX plugin mFlare2. It made very quick work of using its internal Mocha engine to track the light sources and obscure them as needed when a light went behind a person’s head, for example. It would have been agony tracking so many lights in all those shots using anything else. We had struggled for a while getting replacement license plates to track using After Effects and Mocha. However, the six shots that gave us the most headaches were done as a test in FCP X in less than a day using CoreMelt’s TrackX. We also used Final Cut Pro X’s stabilization to smooth out any jagged camera shakes as well as added some shake using FCP X’s handheld effect on a few shots that needed it for consistency.

Another area we had to get creative with was with night driving shots that were just too bright even after color. By layering a few different Rampant Design overlays set to multiply, we were able to simulate lights in motion around the car at night with areas randomly increasing and decreasing in brightness. That had a big impact on smoothing out those scenes, and I think everyone was pretty happy with the result. For fun, Autumn also let me add in a few mostly digital shots, like the private jet. This was done in After Effects using Trapcode Particular for the contrails, and a combination of Maxon Cinema 4D and Element 3D for the jet.

Resolve’s face refinement and eye brightening were used in many scenes to give a little extra eye light. We also used Resolve for sky replacement on the final shot of the film. Resolve’s tracker is also pretty incredible, and was used to hide little things that needed to be masked or de-emphasized.

What about finishing?
Davidson: We finalized everything in FCP X and exported a full, clean ProRes cut of the film. We then re-imported that and added grain, unsharp masks and a light vignette for a touch of cinematic texture. The credits were an evolving process, so we created an Apple Numbers document that was shared with my internal Magic Feather team, as well as Autumn and the producers. As the final document was adjusted and tweaked we would edit an Affinity Photo file that my editor AJ Paschall and I shared. We would then export a huge PNG file of the credits into FCP X and set position keyframes to animate the scroll. Any time a change was made we would just relink to the new PNG export and FCP X would automatically update the credits. Luckily, that was easy because we did that probably 50 times.

Lastly, our final delivery to the DCP company was a HEVC 10-bit 2K encode. I am a huge fan of HEVC. It’s a fantastic codec, but it does have a few caveats in that it takes forever to encode. Using Apple Compressor and a 10-core iMac Pro, it took approximately 13 hours. That said, it was worth it because the colors were accurately represented and gave us a file that 5.52GB versus 18GB or 20GB. That’s a hefty savings on size while also being an improvement in quality over H.264.

Photo Credit: Rich Marchewka

 

Director Sasha Levinson talks about her Las Vegas tourism spots

After seeing some of her previous work, Humble director Sasha Levinson was approached by agency R&R Partners and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority with a vision of creating four short films of personal transformation, each set across one weekend in Las Vegas, where the city was the catalyst in each narrative. The spots play more like a film trailer than a commercial.

Initial scripts were already written, when Levinson won project. “Right out of the gate I started to develop ideas about how I would bring these stories to life in a way that created a human mystique around Las Vegas while showcasing how the city could have an authentically positive impact on each character’s life,” she says.

We reached out to Levinson to find out more about her process and the project.

Who did you work with the most from the agency?
R&R Partners’ Arnie DiGeorge (ECD), Scott Murray (CD) and Gerri Angelo (Producer) were the primary people I interacted with. Once I was officially on board, the collaboration stretched into a place I hadn’t seen in my commercial work thus far. The team stressed their desire to have a filmmaker that could truly bring the films to life, and I think I did just that. They trusted my process whole-heartedly.

Now and Then

Can you walk us through the production process?
While working on readying the scripts for production, I flew out to Las Vegas and spent several days location scouting in and around the city. It was very inspiring to start to feel the environment and begin to envision exactly how our scenes might play out.

We scouted many incredible spaces, both interior and exterior. My process was to put myself into the mindset of each of the characters and decide where they would want to spend their weekend.

The next step was casting, which was done in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. We all took a collective breath when we found our actors because they became the characters that had only been living on the page for quite a while.

It took a dedicated team and the full support of Humble, our production company, to pull this off. Line producer Trevor Allen, AD Scott Murray, AD Todd Martin, costume designer Karmen Dann and location scout/manager Kim Houser-Amaral were a huge help during this two-week shoot.

Two weeks?
Yes, we shot for eight days over the course of two weeks, filming mostly at night in restaurants, nightclubs and suites both on and off The Strip. For interiors alone we shot at over nine different hotel properties, and then filmed various exteriors, driving shots and desert scenes.

Can you talk about each of the four spots?
For the Now and Then spot we used a handheld and Steadicam to stay intimate with the characters. The film lives in a dreamy, indie space, making the audience feel like they are inside the story, and as if the flashbacks are their own memories.

Party of One

The Anniversary was the flirtiest, most luxurious of the films. We were initially planning to film in a different bar, but I changed the schedule when I saw the personality of the final location. It was perfect.

To me, Party of One was a quirky romantic comedy, but the real romance is with herself. This film had a cleaner look with colors that really popped, a playful wardrobe and fun music. The Meetup has the most obvious references to the iconic Oceans and Bond films, and I wanted to do this genre justice.

Victor, the actor in The Meetup has a comedy background, so he was able to give us something different and great each take. We used cleaner lenses and slower-paced, more precise movements using a dolly.

What did you shoot on, and why did you (and assuming the DP) feel this was the best camera?
We shot on the Alexa Mini for its stunning Alexa image and the smaller body. The choice was due to all of the handheld and Steadicam we knew we would be working with. I really love the Alexa and of course we played with a lot of filtration and elements in front of the lens.

Where did you find the inspiration for this campaign?
I was really inspired by the film Paris, je t’aime, which became a reference we really stayed true to with this campaign. We kept saying, “If these four films feel like a love letter to Las Vegas, then we’ve done our job.”

After we finished casting in LA, I spent a weekend in Vegas visiting Valley of Fire State Park, seeing Elton John in concert, riding on the High Roller, eating at some amazing restaurants and overall experiencing the city in a new and inspiring way. I’ve always loved the desert, so there is a built-in romance for me about Vegas being a desert oasis that you just feel, looking out the windows wherever you are. I wanted to capture that essence in this campaign.

Sasha on set

What was the biggest obstacle in directing these four spots?
Las Vegas is all about tourism, so we had to keep the visitor experience in mind when planning our schedules and shooting. It was a constantly changing puzzle of a schedule, but each location had a filming liaison that worked with us. They helped us film across iconic Las Vegas locations like the High Roller at the LinQ Hotel & Casino and the Bellagio Fountains, where we even had an engineer help us control the fountains, starting them at just the right moment in the shot.

Where was this project edited, and how did you work with the editors?
I worked extremely closely with the editors Erin Nordstrom and Nick Pezillo at Spot Welders in Venice, California. They cut on Adobe Premiere, and during the edit process we cut in side-by-side rooms. As we were cutting the first cuts I would hop between rooms as the edits were evolving.

Music was a huge point of discussion. Josh Baron was our music supervisor, and Human created some original pieces. Early in the edit process there was a lot of conversation about tone and feel of the soundtracks. Getting the music to encourage the cinematic feeling was very important to all of us.

Can you talk about what you wanted from the color grade?
Las Vegas has so much light and spectacle, and most of the films took place at night, so I wanted to capture that essence and make sure we didn’t go too far. The idea was that the character of Las Vegas should be cohesive across all four films, but each of the storylines should feel visually dedicated to their respective characters.

Dave Hussey at Company 3 too the reigns on color and hit the perfect balance between fantasy and reality.

We’ve heard a lot about making the ad and production industries more inclusive. How do you see the industry changing? Do you think organizations like Free the Bid are doing their jobs to help female directors get the work they deserve?
I think that filmmaking and content creation is about telling stories that accurately reflect reality, but this isn’t possible without diverse creators showcasing their own unique realities. I’ve spent a lot of time on scouts and shoots where I am the only woman, but this is changing, and there are more and more times where the van is all women, and it’s amazing!

However, just when I think diversity is becoming the norm, I’ll be on set with a crew member or client who says they’ve never worked with a female director. Free the Bid has been an incredible initiative and because it’s so action oriented, you can feel the rumblings of change in realtime. That’s exciting.

Do you have any tips for aspiring female directors?
Being a filmmaker in film or advertising is an incredible career path. My best advice is to develop your authentic voice and find projects that resonate with it. Don’t get lost in what you think you should be doing, and don’t just follow the trends. Be authentic in your work and speak from the heart. And when it comes to starting a reel, donate your time. Find brands or projects that cover the costs and give them your creative skills in exchange for footage to build a reel.

There has been a trend around branded content and spots, that look and like films, like this campaign. Do you think this trend will continue?
I think this trend will continue and extend deeper into newer mediums like immersive storytelling and interactivity. Brands are constantly searching for ways to connect with consumers, and I believe the art of storytelling is an age-old unifier and connector. So it makes sense. Personally, I love the three-act structure and any opportunity to work with this, whether it be 90 seconds or 90 minutes, inspires me.

Are you working on any upcoming projects that we should be on the lookout for?
I’m currently taking my recent film Welcome to Grandville through the festival circuit. It made its premiere at the Cleveland International Film Festival, Perspectives Exhibition, and more recently in New York City at the Soho International Film Festival.

I’ve also just completed a commercial project for Whirlpool, Google and Amazon’s Alexa. Currently, I’m writing a film called the The Discomfort of Skin, about the human discomfort with nudity and sexuality.

Eli Rotholz joins Alkemy X as VP of biz dev

Creative content company Alkemy X has added Eli Rotholz as VP of business development,. He will be based in the company’s New York headquarters.

Rotholz brings more than 12 years of sales/business development, strategy and production experience, having begun his career as an independent sales rep for Ziegler/Jakubowicz and Moustache NYC. From there, he worked in his first in-house position at Click3X, where he built and managed a diverse roster of directorial talent, as well as the company’s first integrated production offering focusing on live-action, VFX/design/animation and editorial.

Rotholz then founded Honor Society Films. He later joined Hone Production, a brand-direct-focused production company and consultancy, as director of business development/content EP.

“Very few companies in the industry can boast the strong directorial roster and VFX capabilities as Alkemy X,” says Rotholz. “In addition to the amazing entertainment work that Alkemy does, there’s definitely a trend in high-end ‘package’ productions where one company can do both live-action shoots with their directors, as well as editorial and VFX.”

Director Natalia Leite joins Humble’s roster

Bi-coastal production studio Humble has signed director Natalia Leite to its roster. Humble is Leite’s commercial representation, but she brings her rich experience as a writer and director for features, indie films and Vice documentaries.

Her MFA, a psychological thriller about rape crimes at a university, premiered at SXSW 2017 and was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize. She also worked on Every Woman, a Vice documentary about traditionally female-held jobs that are often looked down upon. It garnered over 12 million views.

Leite believes in weaving social commentary into her work, especially when it comes to female empowerment.

Her first work with Humble included two docu-style brand films for Vans Off the Wall brand titled Girls Skate India, and Vision Walk, which featured young women building a community and encouraging others to seek and live their passions. Girls Skate India was shortlisted for the 2018 AICP Awards and the AICP Next Awards.

Leite also teamed up with agency Sid Lee to direct a new campaign for The North Face, Move Mountains, that highlights the inspiring stories of female creators, athletes, educators and innovators who are moving mountains in their fields.

“For me, joining Humble was a perfect marriage,” says Leite. “Humble is a collaborative and supportive team that has embraced my passion and personal directing style. There, I will be able to continue telling stories about causes I care about, while branching out more into branded content work.”

Most recently, Leite wrote and directed a short film for a Condé Nast series on LGBT perspectives, which premiered during Pride Week in New York in June. Leite’s project, Kiki and the Mxfits, follows one trans girl whose high school popularity skyrockets when she rebels and uses the girl’s bathroom.

Prolific writer/director Paul Schrader on his latest, First Reformed

By Iain Blair

With his latest film in theaters now, a look back at director and screenwriter Paul Schrader’s movie credits shows just what a force he has been over the years in Hollywood — and especially in the ambitious, serious and hugely influential cinema of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

He wrote Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, which was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture. He reteamed with Robert De Niro and Scorsese on 1980’s boxing saga Raging Bull. That same year saw the release of American Gigolo, starring Richard Gere as a high-priced male escort, which he wrote and directed.

Paul Schrader with writer Iain Blair.

Schrader has also written and/or directed The Last Temptation of Christ (reteaming again with Scorsese), The Mosquito Coast, Cat People, The Comfort of Strangers, Affliction, Bringing Out The Dead (yet another Scorsese collaboration) and Dog Eat Dog.

In his new film, First Reformed (his 21st feature and 12th as writer/director), Schrader examines a crisis of faith centered around a former military chaplain devastated by the death of his son in the Iraq War. Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a solitary, middle-aged parish pastor at a small Dutch Reform church in upstate New York about to celebrate its 250th anniversary.

Once a stop on the Underground Railroad, the church is now a tourist attraction catering to a dwindling congregation, eclipsed by its nearby parent church, Abundant Life, with its state-of-the-art facilities and 5,000-strong flock. When a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) asks Reverend Toller to counsel her husband, a radical environmentalist, the clergyman finds himself plunged into his own tormented past, and equally despairing future, until he finds redemption in an act of violence.

I talked recently with Schrader about making the film and his workflow.

Why did you want to make this type of film?
When I first began my career as a critic in the early ‘70s, I wrote a book, “Transcendental Style in Film,” about spirituality. It looked at various theological concepts in the work of such auteurs as Robert Bresson, who was a big influence on this film, Yasujiro Ozu and Carl Theodor Dreyer. While I liked those films, I never thought I’d make one myself. It just wasn’t me. I was too intoxicated with action and violence, empathy and emotion back then, and these are not really parts of the spiritual tool kit.

When people tried to make connections with my films and the book, which is now coming out in a new updated edition by University of California Press, I’d just say, “No, that’s not me at all.” But then three years ago I started thinking, maybe it’s time for me to do one of these films.

What did Ethan and Amanda bring to their roles?
I cast Ethan for several reasons. He’s the right age, for one thing, and he also looks the part — and by that I mean that his face and the way he carries himself were right for the character. Toller has a sickness of the soul, what Kierkegaard called sickness unto death, or “angst” in German and despair in English.

He tries to deal with his struggle with faith in various ways: by following all the rituals of the church, writing in his journal every day and drinking. But when he tries to counsel Amanda’s husband, who doesn’t feel there’s any future or any reason to keep going, he catches his virus in a way. This manifests itself in despair about the future of human life on the planet. So I told Ethan, “This is a role to lean back from. As the audience moves in, you have to recede. Don’t come to the viewer. Keep leaning back.” And he understood that completely. He’s very smart. He’s a writer, director, playwright and musician and instinctively knew what to do.

With Amanda, we got very lucky because she’s not only a great actor, but she was pregnant in real life, and that’s actually quite hard to fake on film. So often, women who play pregnant women have the stomach, but the face isn’t any different, and of course that changes too. She was on hiatus, because of her pregnancy, but we managed to make the schedule work for her.

You shot on location. How tough was it?
It was fast — just three weeks — and no big problems. With all the new technology, shoots are so much faster, and actors like it much better. In the old days, you’d spend hours lighting and blocking, and they’d spend most of the day in their trailers. Now, there’s hardly any waiting around in between scenes and setups, and it’s better for everyone.

Where did you post?
At The Post Factory (now Sim Post) in New York.

Do you like post?
I love it. It’s very collegial and relaxing after the shoot. I love editing, even when things go wrong. About five years ago I made this film Dying of the Light, a psychological thriller with Nic Cage. It was a bit of a debacle, and the film was taken away from me. While I was doing the next film, Dog Eat Dog, I realized what I should have done with editing Dying. So I said to Ben Rodriguez, the editor on Dog, who was trained by the great Hank Corwin, ‘I don’t need you on First Reformed, since it’s a very sedate film, but we should be able to re-cut Dying while we’re also working on this.

I had permission to do this, and if you Google “Schrader Rotterdam Dark,” you’ll see a lecture I gave earlier this year detailing how and why I decided to do the re-cut, which is now titled Dark. So we were editing both the glacially paced First Reformed and the completely over-the-top Dying at the same time, and it was a lot of fun.

What were the main editing challenges on this?
Keeping the right tone and pace, and I actually thought it was going to be slower than it is, as I’d decided to make slower films. So when I first showed it, I warned people that it was slow, but then people disagreed with me. The thing with slow cinema is that you have to modulate when you withhold from an audience, and if you withhold all the time, it becomes sort of monotonous. So you have to withhold a little, and the pacing becomes critical. In the end, there was very little left on the cutting room floor. We shot very close to the bone and hardly wasted anything.

This is obviously a performance-driven piece, but there are some impressive VFX sequences — notably where the two leads begin to levitate and then fly off through all these fantastic environments. Do you enjoy working on VFX like that?
No, I don’t. They were all done by Cloak & Dagger VFX and Atomic Art. Cloak & Dagger’s Brian Houlihan was the VFX supervisor. They did wonderful work and I’m very happy with the results. The great thing about VFX today is you can do all the cleanup so easily, and you don’t do signage anymore. You do it all in post. But I don’t enjoy the long process involved and all the waiting.

You’ve always had great music in your films, like David Bowie in Cat People and Blondie in American Gigolo. Can you talk about the importance of sound and music in this and to you as a filmmaker.
It’s so important… if you get it right. But when you start to work on the quiet side, on the contemplative side, music becomes very tricky, as it’s the easiest way to dictate emotion and feelings — happy, sad, frightened, angry — to the audience. You’ll get them coming towards you by telling them how to feel all the time. But you should let them wonder how they should feel.

So a lot of films in this style don’t use music, or very little. They only use sound effects. That’s what I started doing on this, for about two-thirds of the film. But then I started working with Lustmord, a composer who works in ambient sound and who’s basically a sound designer, and now I think the two disciplines — composer and sound designer — have combined.

What about the DI?
We did it at Company 3 in New York with colorist Tim Masick (who used Blackmagic Resolve), and I love the process. It’s fun and not at all stressful compared with the shoot, and I’m pretty involved with it. We chose not to go with the usual film look on this one. It’s so easy now to apply an algorithm in the DI and make your movie look like it has film grain. But the DP, Alexander Dynan, and I both felt it didn’t need that, and I love the cool, austere look we ended up with. (Check out our interview with Tim Masick here.)

It’s interesting how that aspect of post has really changed. When I first began, you’d shoot for 10, 12 weeks and do just three or four days of color. Now, you shoot for three weeks and do color for three weeks, and that change has helped lower costs all around.

Did it all turn out the way you pictured?
It did, and I’m very happy with it. In many ways it’s a kind of high-wire act, making this kind of film, as there’s very little room for failure when you deal with spiritual matters and such serious subjects.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

The Duffer Brothers: Showrunners on Netflix’s Stranger Things

By Iain Blair

Kids in jeopardy! The Demogorgon! The Hawkins Lab! The Upside Down! Thrills and chills! Since they first pitched their idea for Stranger Things, a love letter to 1980’s genre films set in 1983 Indiana, twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer have quickly established themselves as masters of suspense in the science-fiction and horror genres.

The series was picked up by Netflix, premiered in the summer of 2016, and went on to become a global phenomenon, with the brothers at the helm as writers, directors and executive producers.

The Duffer Brothers

The atmospheric drama, about a group of nerdy misfits and strange events in an outwardly average small town, nailed its early ’80s vibe and overt homages to that decade’s master pop storytellers: Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. It quickly made stars out of its young ensemble cast — Millie Bobby Brown, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Joe Keery, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Sadie Sink and Finn Wolfhard.

It also quickly attracted a huge, dedicated fan base, critical plaudits and has won a ton of awards, including Emmys, a SAG Award for Best Ensemble in a Drama Series and two Critics Choice Awards for Best Drama Series and Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. The show has also been nominated for a number of Golden Globes.

I recently talked with the Duffers, who are already hard at work on the highly anticipated third season (which will premiere on Netflix in 2019) about making the ambitious hit series, their love of post and editing, and VFX.

How’s the new season going?
Matt Duffer: We’re two weeks into shooting, and it’s going great. We’re very excited about it as there are some new tones and it’s good to be back on the ground with everyone. We know all the actors better and better, the kids are getting older and are becoming these amazing performers — and they were great before. So we’re having a lot of fun.

Are you shooting in Atlanta again?
Ross Duffer: We are, and we love it there. It’s really our home base now, and we love all these pockets of neighborhoods that have not changed at all since the ‘80s, and there is an incredible variety of locations. We’re also spreading out a lot more this season and not spending so much time on stages. We have more locations to play with.

Will all the episodes be released together next year, like last time? That would make binge-watchers very happy.
Matt: Yes, but we like to think of it more as like a big movie release. To release one episode per week feels so antiquated now.

The show has a very cinematic look and feel, so how do you balance that with the demands of TV?
Ross: It’s interesting, because we started out wanting to make movies and we love genre, but with a horror film they want big scares every few minutes. That leaves less room for character development. But with TV, it’s always more about character, as you just can’t sustain hours and hours of a show if you don’t care about the people. So ‘Stranger Things’ was a world where we could tell a genre story, complete with the monster, but also explore character in far more depth than we could in a movie.

Matt: Movies and TV are almost opposites in that way. In movies, it’s all plot and no character, and in TV it’s about character and you have to fight for plot. We wanted this to have pace and feel more like a movie, but still have all the character arcs. So it’s a constant balancing act, and we always try and favor character.

Where do you post the show?
Matt: All in Hollywood, and the editors start working while we’re shooting. After we shoot in Atlanta, we come back to our offices and do all the post and VFX work right there. We do all the sound mix and all the color timing at Technicolor down the road. We love post. You never have enough time on the set, and there’s all this pressure if you want to redo a shot or scene, but in post if a scene isn’t working we can take time to figure it out.

Tell us about the editing. I assume you’re very involved?
Ross: Very. We have two editors this season. We brought back one of our original editors, Dean Zimmerman, from season one. We are also using Nat Fuller, who was on season two. He was Dean’s assistant originally and then moved up, so they’ve been with us since the start. Editing’s our favorite part of the whole process, and we’re right there with them because we love editing. We’re very hands on and don’t just give notes and walk away. We’re there the whole time.

Aren’t you self-taught in terms of editing?
Matt: (Laughs) I suppose. We were taught the fundamentals of Avid at film school, but you’re right. We basically taught ourselves to edit as kids, and we started off just editing in-camera, stopping and starting, and playing the music from a tape recorder. They weren’t very good, but we got better.

When iMovie came out we learned how to put scenes together, so in college the transition to Avid wasn’t that hard. We fell in love with editing and just how much you can elevate your material in post. It’s magical what you can do with the pace, performances, music and sound design, and then you add all the visual effects and see it all come together in post. We love seeing the power of post as you work to make your story better and better.

How early on do you integrate post and VFX with the production?
Ross: On day one now. The biggest change from season one to two was that we integrated post far earlier in the second season — even in the writing stage. We had concept artists and the VFX guys with us the whole time on set, and they were all super-involved. So now it all kind of happens together.

All the VFX are a much bigger deal. For last season we had a lot more VFX than the first year — about 1,400 shots, which is a huge amount, like a big movie. The first season it wasn’t a big deal. It was a very old-school approach, with mainly practical effects, and then in the middle we realized we were being a bit naïve, so we brought in Paul Graff as our VFX supervisor on season two, and he’s very experienced. He’s worked on big movies like The Wolf of Wall Street as well as Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire, and he’s doing this season too. He’s in Atlanta with us on the shoot.

We have two main VFX houses on the show — Atomic Fiction and Rodeo — they’re both incredible, and I think all the VFX are really cinematic now.

But isn’t it a big challenge in terms of a TV show’s schedule?
Ross: You’re right, and it’s always a big time crunch. Last year we had to meet that Halloween worldwide release date and we were cutting it so close trying to finish all the shots in time.

Matt: Everyone expects movie-quality VFX — just in a quarter of the time, or less. So it’s all accelerated.

The show has a very distinct, eerie, synth-heavy score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, the Grammy nominated duo. How important is the music and sound, which won several Emmys last year?
Ross: It’s huge. We use it so much for transitions, and we have great sound designers — including Brad North and Craig Henighan — and great mixers, and we pay a lot of attention to all of it. I think TV has always put less emphasis on great sound compared to film, and again, you’re always up against the scheduling, so it’s always this balancing act.

You can’t mix it for a movie theater as very few people have that set up at home, so you have to design it for most people who’re watching on iPhones, iPads and so on, and optimize it for that, so we mostly mix in stereo. We want the big movie sound, but it’s a compromise.

The DI must be vital?
Matt: Yes, and we work very closely with colorist Skip Kimball (who recently joined Efilm), who’s been with us since the start. He was very influential in terms of how the show ended up looking. We’d discussed the kind of aesthetic we wanted, and things we wanted to reference and then he played around with the look and palette. We’ve developed a look we’re all really happy with. We have three different LUTs on set designed by Skip and the DP Tim Ives will choose the best one for each location.

Everyone’s calling this the golden age of TV. Do you like being showrunners?
Ross: We do, and I feel we’re very lucky to have the chance to do this show — it feels like a big family. Yes, we originally wanted to be movie directors, but we didn’t come into this industry at the right time, and Netflix has been so great and given us so much creative freedom. I think we’ll do a few more seasons of this, and then maybe wrap it up. We don’t want to repeat ourselves.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

Director Kay Cannon on her raunchy comedy Blockers

By Iain Blair

At a time when women are increasingly breaking down barriers in Hollywood, writer/director Kay Cannon is helping lead the charge. The director of Universal’s new film, Blockers, got her start at such comedic training grounds as The Second City, The iO West Theater and The ComedySportz Theatre.

Kay Cannon

While writing and performing around Chicago, she met Tina Fey, a fellow Second City alumna. When Fey began 30 Rock, Cannon joined the creative team and worked her way up from staff writer to supervising producer on the show. She’s a three-time Primetime Emmy-nominated writer, twice for Outstanding Comedy Series and once for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. She has also won three Writers Guild of America Awards, as well as a Peabody, all for her work on 30 Rock.

Cannon, who also served as a co-executive producer on New Girl, a consulting producer on Cristela and co-produced the hit feature Baby Mama, received rave reviews for her debut screenplay for the film Pitch Perfect, and she wrote and co-produced the hit sequels. She served as the executive producer, creator and showrunner of the Netflix series Girlboss, based on Sophia Amoruso’s best-selling autobiography, which starred Britt Robertson.

Now, with the new release Blockers, Cannon — one of only a handful of women ever to direct an R-rated comedy for a big studio — has stepped behind the camera and made an assured and polished directorial debut with this coming-of-age sex comedy that takes one of the most relatable rites of passage and upends a long-held double standard. When three parents discover their daughters’ pact to lose their virginity at prom, they launch a covert one-night operation to stop the teens from sealing the deal.

The film stars Leslie Mann (The Other Woman, This is 40), John Cena (Trainwreck, Sisters) and Ike Barinholtz (Neighbors, Suicide Squad). It is produced by Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen and James Weaver, under their Point Grey Pictures banner (Neighbors, This is the End), alongside Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (Harold & Kumar) and Chris Fenton (47 Ronin).

Cannon leds an accomplished behind-the-scenes team, including director of photography Russ Alsobrook (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Superbad), production designer Brandon Tonner-Connolly (The Big Sick) and editor Stacey Schroeder (The Disaster Artist).

I recently talked to Cannon about making the bawdy film, which generated huge buzz at SXSW, and her advice for other aspiring women directors.

This is like a long-overdue female take on such raunchy-but-sweet male comedies as American Pie and Superbad. Was that the appeal of this story for you?
When I read the script, I really connected on two levels. I was a teenager who lost her virginity, and I’m also the mother of a daughter, and while she was only two at the time, it made me think about her and what might happen to her in the future. And that’s scary, and I saw how parents can lose their minds.

How did you first envision the film?
I grew up in a small town in the Chicago area and I was inspired by John Hughes and all his great teen comedies. I could really relate to them, and I felt he was speaking to me, that he really got that world and the way it looked. I wanted to do that too, and show how people really live, and I wanted it to feel real and grounded — but then I was also going to go to a very crazy place and got very silly. (Laughs) That was very important to me, because I wanted to make people laugh really hard, but also feel emotion.

Did you always want to direct?
It wasn’t always my dream. That’s shifted over the years. I started off wanting to be an actor on a sitcom, then writing one and then wanting to have my own show, which happened with Girlboss, so that was my focus for the past few years. To be honest, I’d kind of do movies when TV didn’t work out for me. A pilot didn’t happen, so I wrote Pitch Perfect, and then did Pitch 2 when another pilot didn’t go.

How did you prepare for directing your first film?
Being the showrunner on Girlboss was great training because I could shadow all the directors and watch them work, and I felt definitely ready to direct a film.

What was the biggest surprise of directing for the first time?
I pretty much knew what to expect — and that there will always be surprises on the day and stuff you could never have anticipated. You just have to work through it and keep going.

How tough was the shoot?
It was hard. We shot in Atlanta for nine weeks, and the last five were nights, and that’s very tough. I had a very long script to squeeze into the shoot. But Russ, my DP, was a huge help. We’d worked together before on New Girl, and he’s so experienced; he really guided me through it all.

Where did you do the post?
All in LA. We started at Sunset Gower, and then we took a break and did some reshoots in January, and then finished at Pivotal Post in Burbank.

Do you like post?
When I was at Girlboss I’d never experienced post before, so I was really afraid and uncomfortable with the whole process. It was so new and a bit daunting to me, especially as a writer. I loved writing and shooting, but it took me a while to get comfortable with post. But once I did, I loved it, and now it’s my favorite thing. I’d spend the night there if I could! As they say, it’s where you actually make the film and where the real magic happens.

Kay Cannon on set directing Leslie Mann and John Cena.

Your editor was Stacey Schroeder (pilot for The Last Man on Earth, for which she got an editing Emmy nom). How did that relationship work?
We’d worked together before on Girlboss, and we have a great partnership. She’s like my right-hand, and we’re automatically on the same page. We very rarely disagree, and what’s so great is that she’s extremely opinionated and has no poker face. I’m the same way. So it’s very refreshing to sit there and discuss material and any problems without taking anything personally. I really appreciate her honesty.

What were the biggest editing challenges?
Trying to balance the raucous comedy stuff with the serious emotions underneath, and dealing with some of the big set pieces. The whole puking scene was difficult as we shot three times the material you see, and there was a whole drug thing, and it was very long and it just wasn’t working. We previewed it a couple of times and it was seen as a poor man’s Bridesmaids. (Laughs) And then I saw Baby Driver and it hit us — what if we put the whole scene to music? And that was so much fun and it suddenly all worked.

Resistance VFX did the visual effects shots, and there seemed to be quite a few, considering it’s a comedy. What was involved?
You’re right. Usually comedies don’t have that many and we had a significant amount, including the puke scenes, and then all the computer stuff and the emojis. And then they did such a great job with all Amy Mann’s tears at the end. I really loved working with VFX, and the fact that they can create all this magic in post. I’d be constantly amazed. “Can you do that?” They’d sigh and go, “Yes Kay, we can do that, no problem.” It was a real education for me.

Where did you do the DI?
At Technicolor, and I was pretty involved along with Ross. I loved that whole process too. Again, it’s the magic of post. (Maxine Gervais was the supervising senior colorist. She used a FilmLight Baselight 5.)

Did it turn out the way you hoped?
Absolutely.

Do you want to direct again?
Definitely, if I get another chance.

What’s next?
I’m writing a movie for Sony — another comedy — and I’ve got a bunch of projects percolating.

What advice would you give to any woman wanting to direct?
Do the work, and don’t quit when it gets hard. I think a lot of women quit before the magic happens, and there were times when I wanted to quit, but you can’t. You have to keep going.

Kay Cannon Photo Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert (c) 2018 Universal. 


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

Director Olivier Gondry returns to Partizan

Director Olivier Gondry has once again joined the roster at production house Partizan. Gondry, known for his commercial and music video work, made his first major mark with his commercials for HP, featuring his brother Michel and Vera Wang. Since then, this Paris-based director has gone on to collaborate with brands such as Audi, YouTube, Fiat, Microsoft, Starbucks, Nissan, Canon, Gillette, True Religion, Etsy and Trip Advisor.

Originally known as a visual effects artist, it was at Partizan where Gondry first established himself as a director. The renewed connection is a happy homecoming for Gondry and Partizan, which maintains offices in Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, São Paulo and in the Middle East.

Olivier’s endeavors in the music world include work with such artists as Daft Punk, OK Go and The Vines. Most recently, Olivier created a slightly disturbing and compelling visual exultation of facial flux and melding bodies for Joywave’s Doubt.

“Partizan has been part of my life since forever,” says Gondry. “First as a brother watching Michel climbing the steps. I can still remember him telling me, ‘I met this producer [Georges Bermann].’ I was proud and curious already! It was here that I first transitioned from special effects to directing. I’m so happy to return to Partizan, to be back home and back with my brother.”

Gondry is also currently in development on a long-form narrative project.

End of the Line director Jessica Sanders

By Randi Altman

After watching the End of the Line, I found myself thinking about the short film’s content… a lot. Based on a short story by Aimee Bender, director Jessica Sanders’ version starts off with a man walking into a pet store, looking into what the audience assumes is a birdcage and walking out not with a bird but a little man in a cage.

We see how Big Man (Stranger Things’ Brett Gelman) tries to take care of Little Man (Big Bang Theory‘s Simon Helberg) and then we see his frustration when the clearly well-read and intelligent Little Man tells the story of how he was taken from his family and put in a cage. Big Man’s behavior becomes increasingly disturbing, leading him to torture Little Man.

We reached out to director Sanders — who has an Oscar nomination thanks to her short documentary, Sing! — to talk about making the film, which is part of Refinery29 and TNT’s Shatterbox Anthology, a short film series dedicated to supporting the voices of female filmmakers.

Let’s start with cameras. What did you shoot on, and how involved in that process are you?
We shot on the Alexa Mini with Panavision primo lenses. I like to go over lenses/looks with my DP, but defer to what the DP wants to shoot on. For this project, I worked with ultra-talented DP Brett Pawlak.

How long was the shoot, and how much pre-production did you do? I’m assuming a good amount considering the VFX shots?
The film, although short (14 minutes), was essentially a feature in terms of preparation and the production scope/crew size, shooting for six days. We had about two months of intense prep leading up to the shoot, from scouting and art department. For example, we built a 30-foot penis and 30-foot cage. The VFX approach was an intensive collaboration between VFX supervisor Eva Flodstrom, my DP Brett, production designer Justin Trask, producer Louise Shore and myself.

We had 67 VFX shots, so I storyboarded the film early on and then photoboarded each shot when we had our locations. We had a specific VFX/production approach to execute each shot from a mix of practicals (building the giant cage), to strictly greenscreen (i.e., when the little man is on a calculator). It was a highly involved and collaborative process.

Was your VFX supervisor on set?
Yes. Eva was highly involved from the beginning for all of prep, and on set she was instrumental. We worked closely with a DIT video assist so we could do a rough VFX comp of each shot while we were shooting. After production, it took about four months to finish post and visual effects.

I wanted to work with Eva, as she’s a pro, having worked on Star Wars and Star Trek (also, there are very few female VFX supervisors). Our approach/philosophy to VFX was similar — inspired by Michel Gondry’s and Spike Jonze’s work in which the VFX feels human, warm and practical, integral to the story and characters, never distracting.

Can you talk about the challenges of directing a project with VFX?
I had never done a VFX-heavy film before, and creatively, as a director, I wanted to challenge myself. I had a blast and want to do more films with VFX after this experience. Because I surrounded myself with top artists who had VFX experience, it was a totally enjoyable experience. We had a lot of fun making this film!

This was likely a hard story to tell. As the viewer you think it’s going to be a sweet story about a guy and his bird, but then…
I read Aimee Bender’s short story End of the Line in her book Willful Creatures in 2005 and have been passionate about it since then. The story takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster. It’s funny, dark, explores themes of loneliness, desire and abuse of power, in a short amount of time. There are a lot of tonal shifts, and I worked closely with screenwriter Joanne Giger to achieve this balance.

How did you as a director set out to balance the humor, the sadness, the kinda disturbing stuff, etc.?
I played the film visually and tonally very grounded (i.e. the rules of this world is that there is a big person and tiny person world that live side by side) and from that I could push the humor and darkness. In the performances, I wanted there to be an emotional truth to what the characters are experiencing that feels human and real, despite the fantastical setting. So I played with a lot of the mix of feelings within this very grounded surreal world.

The color is sort of muted in an old-timey kind of way. Can you talk about what you wanted from the color and mood?
I’m very sensitive to color and attention to detail. We wanted the film to feel timeless, although it is contemporary. Costume designer Shirley Kurata is amazing with color blocking and visual storytelling with color. Because Big Man’s world is more depressed and lonely, his tones are gray, the house is dark wood. As Big Man gains power, he wears more color. My DP has a very naturalistic approach with his lighting, so I wanted everything to feel very natural.

When we colored the film later in post, the approach was to do very little to the film, as it was captured in-camera. Production designer Justin Trask is a genius — from how he designed and built the giant penis (to feel less naturalistic) to the details of Little Man’s cage (his furniture, the giant bread crumb on a coin). We had a lot of fun exploring all the miniature props and details in this film.

How did you work with your editors? What did they cut on?
Because of the VFX, we edited on Adobe Premiere. I worked with editor Stephen Berger, who helped shape the film and did an amazing job doing the rough VFX comps in the edit. He is great with music and brought musical inspirations, which led to composer Pedro Bromfman’s entire saxophone score. Pedro is a big composer from Brazil and did my last documentary March of the Living. Editor Claudia Castello is incredible with performance, building the emotional arc of each character. She edited Fruitvale Station, Creed and was an editor on Black Panther. It was a great collaborative experience.

You had a lot of women on the crew. It seems like you went out of your way to find female talent. Why is this so important to you and the industry in general?
As a woman and a woman of Asian descent (I’m half Chinese), it’s important to me to be surrounded by a diverse group of collaborators and to hire with as much gender equality as possible. I love working with talented women and supporting women. The world is a diverse place. It’s important to me to have different perspectives reflected in filmmaking and representation. There is a huge inequality of the hiring practices in Hollywood (4% of Hollywood feature films were directed by women last year), so it’s critical to hire talented, qualified women.

Do you think things are getting better for females in the industry, especially in the more technical jobs?
I’ve always hired female cinematographers, editors and worked with Eva Flodstrom for VFX. With my friend/colleague Rachel Morrison, who is the first female cinematographer nominated for an Oscar, I hope things are changing for women with more visibility and dialogue. Change can only happen by actually hiring talented women (like director Ryan Coogler (Black Panther) who works with female cinematographers and editors).

You’ve directed both narrative and documentary projects. Do you have a preference, or do you enjoy switching back and forth?
This film marks a new creative chapter and narrative direction in my work. I love my background in documentaries, but I am fully focused on narrative filmmaking at the moment.

How was Sundance for you and the film?
Sundance was an incredible experience and platform for the film. We were IndieWire’s Top 10 Must See Films. My creative team came out, including actors Simon Helberg and Vivian Bang. It was a blast!

Oscar-winner Jordan Peele on directing Get Out

By Iain Blair

Get Out, the feature film debut of comedian-turned-director Jordan Peele, is chock full of shocks and surprises. This multi-layered horror film also shocked a lot of people in the industry when it went on to gross over a quarter of a billion dollars — on a $4.5 million budget — making it one of the most profitable films in Hollywood history. But those shocks are nothing compared to the ones Peele and his movie generated when it scooped up four major Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director (in a very strong Best Director year, Peele beat out the likes of Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Martin McDonagh). He won for Best Original Screenplay.

The writer/director honed his cinematic skills on the Comedy Central sketch show Key and Peele, which quickly became a television and Internet sensation, earning 12 Primetime Emmy Award nominations and over 900 million online hits. For his first film, which stars Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford, he assembled a stellar group of collaborators, including director of photography Toby Oliver (Insidious: Chapter 4), production designer Rusty Smith (Meet the Fockers), editor Gregory Plotkin (the Paranormal Activity series), costume designer Nadine Haders (Into the Badlands) and composer Michael Abels.

With the huge critical and commercial success of Get Out, Peele has now joined the big leagues. I recently caught up with Peele who talked about the Oscars, making the film, and his love of post.

This is your directorial movie debut, and it’s not only Oscar-nominated for Best Picture but also for Best Director. Are you still pinching yourself?
Oh yeah, 100 percent! It’s not something I feel I’ll ever get used to. It’s way beyond any expectations I had.

You were also Oscar-nominated for Best Original Screenplay, making you only the third person ever — after Warren Beatty and James L. Books — to score that and Best Director, Best Picture nods for your debut film. You realize it’s all downhill from here?
(Laughs) Yeah, I might as well quit making movies now while I’m still ahead, because I’m in big trouble. And that’s pretty ironic as the best award and reward for making my first movie is the fact that I get to make another.

You’re only the fifth African-American filmmaker to earn a Best Director nom and none have won. Is change coming fast enough?
I think change should have come a long time ago, but at least now we see some real progress, with such directors as Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay, Gary Gray, Barry Jenkins and Dee Rees. It’s this new class of amazing black directors, and people have worked very hard to get to this point, and it’s thanks to all the work of previous filmmakers. What’s blossoming in the industry now is very beautiful, so I’m very hopeful for the future.

When it comes to the Oscars, horror and comedy are two genres that don’t seem to get much respect. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s because they’re genres that are typically focused on getting a monetary return, so they get put in that box and are seen as lightweight and movies that are not art — even though there are many examples of elevated horror and elevated comedy that are extremely artistic films. So there’s that stigma. And if people don’t like horror, they just don’t like it, so it’s not a genre that you can expect everyone to want to see, unlike comedy. Everyone pretty much loves comedy, but when people tell me they don’t like horror, I tell them to seek it out, that it won’t scare them that much, and that it might surprise them.

Did you write this thinking, “I want to direct it too?”No, I never planned to direct it, but then about half-way through writing it I realized I was the only person who could actually direct it. I feel that being both the writer and director is easier than not doing both, because they’re done at separate times, so you don’t have to overlap, and then later if you want to change something on set, you know that you’re not missing or mistaking what the writer intended.

What sort of film did you set out to make, because it’s not just a straightforward horror film, is it?
No. I wanted to make a film I’d never seen before. It’s been called many things, and I myself have called it both a horror film and a social thriller. I was aiming at the genre somewhere between Rosemary’s Baby and Scream, so it’s about a lot of things — the way America deals with race and the idea that racism itself is a monster, and that we can’t neglect abuses and just stand by while atrocities happen. So I tried to incorporate a lot of layers and make something people would want to see more than once.

How did you prepare for directing your first film? It’s got to be pretty daunting.
It’s actually terrifying since you don’t know what you don’t know. I talked to everyone I could — Edgar Wright, Ben Affleck, Leigh Whannell, Peter Atencio who did our show and Keanu, and any other director I could — to try and prepare as much as possible.

How was the shoot?
We shot in Mobile, Alabama, and it was probably the most fun I’ve ever had working on anything. It was so hard and so intense. I was very prepared, but then you also have to be open to adapting and making changes, and too much preparation can work against you if you’re not careful.

Do you like the post process?
I absolutely loved it, and one big reason is because after so long just imagining what the film might look like, all of a sudden you have all the pieces of the puzzle in front of you, and you’re finally making the film. Post teaches you so much about what the film is meant to be and what it wants to be.

Where did you edit and post this?
At Blumhouse in LA.

Tell us about working with editor Gregory Plotkin, who cut most of the Paranormal Activity franchise for Paramount and Blumhouse Productions.
He’s a very accomplished editor and a real horror fan like me, so we bonded immediately over that. He could break down the script and all my influences from Hitchcock and Kubrick to Spielberg and Jonathan Demme. He did his pass and then I came in and did my director’s pass, and then we went over it all with a fine-tooth comb, tightening scenes up and so on and focusing on pace and timing, which are crucial in horror and comedy.

Is it true you shot multiple endings for the film? How did you decide on the right one?
We actually shot two, and the first one was not a happy one. When we edited it all together we realized it wasn’t working for an audience. They thought it was a downer, and then I realized it needed a hero and a happy ending instead, so that after going through all the stress, the audience could come out happy. So we asked for more money and went off and did a reshoot of the ending, which added another layer and worked far better.

Sound and music are so important in horror. Can you talk about that?
I look at it as at least half the movie since you can scare audiences so much with just clever sound design. I paid a lot of attention to it during the writing process, and then once we got into post it all became a very meticulous process. We were careful not to overdo all the sound design. We did it all at Wildfire, and they are such pros and were up for trying anything. They really understood my vision.

Can you talk about the VFX?
Ingenuity Studios did them and the big one was creating “The Sunken Place,” and it was tricky to do it as we didn’t have a bearing on this world apart from what I’d originally imagined. There was no up or down. Should the camera be fixed or floating? In the end, we shot Daniel Kaluuya against a black background on cables, and then Gregory played around in the Avid a lot, resizing the image. Then we added some CG stuff to give it that sort of underwater feel. We had a bunch of other shots, like the car hitting the deer and the father being impaled on the deer horns, which was all CGI.

Who was the colorist, and where did you do the DI?
It was all at Blumhouse, with Aidan Stanford, and I was pretty involved. It was tricky, and you can quickly go overboard with color, but the DP, Toby, did such a great job on the shoot that we mainly just tried to match his original color and not push it too far.

I assume you can’t wait to direct again?
Oh yeah! There’s nothing more fun. It’s the biggest artistic collaboration I can imagine, with all these moving parts, and I loved every minute of it.

What’s next?
I’m working on another screenplay, which I’ll direct for Universal. I just love Hitchcockian thrillers, so I’m staying in the same genre and zone.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.