Part of me hopes that this blog post becomes an elaborate reverse jinx. One of the projects I’m going to talk about is being pitched today. If it sells, it not only makes a decision about which film to do first easier, the sale would also make that next film possible. But honestly, that’s highly unlikely.
We put a lot of planning and preparation into our campaign. But it’s hard to know exactly what you’re up against in a crowdfunding campaign until you’re actually in the middle of it. People often say there aren’t enough hours in the day, but it’s incredibly frustrating to literally not have enough hours – to watch one day end and the other begin while still trying to fit in work for two jobs.While we had some setbacks, such as getting sick, or the emotional blow and physical limitations of Violet’s broken foot, there are a lot of people that I’m sure have cleared greater hurdles on their way to a successful crowdfunding campaign than the ones we have faced.
The general trend with Kickstarter is that people either make just enough to hit their goal, or make hardly anything at all. There’s not really many in between that. I think that’s because people who don’t hit their goal either A)Don’t understand crowdfunding and leave their campaign page for dead the moment they launch it, or B)Recognize the overwhelming odds against them hitting their goal at a certain point and cancel the campaign.
We learned quickly to narrow the focus of our audience and in hindsight I wish we had done so in our original pitch script. We’re falling short because we either haven’t reached our target audience outside our network, or our project isn’t resonating with them. Or both. Hopefully not both. But we think there’s a lot of headway to make into reaching potential audience and there’s still time to do that. We also haven’t made a dent into our 2nd degree of contacts. Friends of friends aren’t backers. We have a lot of likes and I’m hopeful that we can make a case to convert them to backers in the time that remains while we continue to reach new people. On the bright side, there are a lot more “wow, he/she is a backer? That’s awesome” cases than there are, “I can’t believe he/she hasn’t backed yet,” ones.
When I was in high school, I went on a ski trip during Christmas break. It was only my second time skiing, so while I picked it up pretty quickly, I was still very much a beginner. But I just had to try some black diamond moguls. I was in over my head on the course, and to make it worse, it was right below one of the ski lifts. I wrecked every few moguls the entire way down that course. It was painful. But I was determined to finish that course, and in the end I did. And maybe if I had waited until I was a more experience skier, I would’ve left my first mogul course with fewer bumps and bruises. But if you’re going to advance, you have to dive in sooner or later. It would’ve been easy to take off my skis and walk down the mountain, conceding defeat. That’s not me though.
When you dive in, you might get laughed at. You might get hurt. You’ll probably fail. It shouldn’t matter. You keep going until the end of the course. I do. I’ll see you at our finish line on Friday, November 2nd. Battered and beaten, but successful.
When 2012 began, I was very overweight. I had reached a point where enough was enough and decided to do something about it. After a friendly bet, a changed diet, regular running, biking to work, and walking places I used to drive, I lost 40 pounds by May. My long-term goal for the year to reach a healthy weight was 50 pounds, but once I won the bet and reached a comfortable number, I stopped a lot of the good habits I had formed over the first 5 months. It was easy to feel comfortable with where I was even if it wasn’t my final goal. There was a crossroads – I could either be complacent or I could continue being driven toward my goal. I’m going to stay driven.
I went for a run earlier this evening and was extremely tempted to stop early. During the first five months when I was focused on weight loss, I would run anywhere from 3-5 miles, but always at least the 3. Since then, I’ve run more than 3.5 miles only once and only more than 3 a handful of times. It became very easy to hit 2 miles and call it a day, feeling proud of myself just for doing anything at all. Sometimes, that’s not enough though. Tonight I finished a 3.1 mile run. I really want to finish off those last ten pounds and I’m not going to get there by settling.
I also want to make a movie. A science fiction feature film, to be exact. Chutes is all I’ve been thinking about all year. Our Kickstarter campaign launched Sunday afternoon. I have been touched and humbled by the people who have backed our project so far. But it’s not enough. We have a lofty goal of $28,000 because that is the minimum it would cost to get this thing shot. Now, given the support received so far, it would be very easy to take that same complacent attitude. “Well, it was a tough goal, but we tried.” It would be very easy to take away the support we’ve had to feel okay with defeat. But that’s not what’s going to happen.
It’s the early stage of a marathon, where the realization of how far this run actually is sets in. That moment of panic when you’re not sure what you’ve gotten yourself into. But you weather that, calm down, and keep going. We’re not even at the point of the marathon where we hit a wall. We’re just getting started. And until that counter says no time left, I will be pushing as hard as I can. The difference with this Kickstarter though, unlike my nightly runs, is that I won’t be crossing the finish line alone. There will be a whole lot of people with me by the end of this campaign. If you’re reading this, I hope you’ll be one of them.
That’s right, our web series site is live. Check it out here —> http://www.chutesladderswebseries.com
We also have a Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Chutes-and-Ladders-Web-Series/212414365465674
Our first teaser trailer will be going up next week. If you’re a fan of what we’re doing, please like us and be sure to follow those pages for updates about the web series.
I took a week off from my day job to get things going with the web series. The plan was to use most of the week for prep and then start shooting at the end of the week – Friday, Saturday, and Sunday would be our first three days. I thought that would be plenty of time, but it took every spare second to make sure we were ready by Friday morning.
The toughest decision we had with our limited budget was what crew we were going to have. Since my focus hadn’t been on production the last year or two, there weren’t many crew friends I had kept in touch with enough to ask for volunteer work. We also wanted to avoid too big a crew. We were working with clamp lights in one location with a handful of actors. We had a situation where we were fortunate to not need a lot of people to get by. So there had to be some cuts.
We had a sound guy , Victor David, who will also be creating our score, we had a friend, Andrew, who was on break between reality shows who would be our sole gaffer/grip, we had Violet, our makeup/hair/wardrobe/production design/production manager, Datta, who was a Producer, but also acting, Ritchie, who was our family PA, and I would was DP’ing as well as directing. From there, we made the decision to hire a Script Supervisor rather than a First AD. We could only afford one. Since there wasn’t much crew and I had already done the scheduling, we thought it made more sense to go with the Script Supervisor. I’m editing the thing too, and with everything else going on, we needed good continuity and good notes. We really needed that organization in the madness.
In hindsight, next time we will bite the bullet and hire a few more people. There were times we really missed having an AD. The first day (which I’ll cover in more detail next post), we simply did not have enough people. Datta had to hold a blanket up outside a window on a day he was filming. Producer or not, it’s never good to have to ask an actor to do that kind of work. For the next shooting days, we added a couple more people, but what really made a difference is that our little crew that could really got the hang of working together. By day 3 we were fast and efficient. But it took finding that right mix of talented people to pull that off.
Back to prep. Those days leading up to filming were filled with small errands that added up thanks to LA traffic. Driving out to meet up with potential crew, then driving to the read through, and then back ate up a ton of time. Having a checklist to get through all the tiny things was priceless. Without that list, so many things would have been overlooked. Next time, the one thing I will have for sure is a Production Manager and help for those prep days, so that I’m not making a shot list between runs to Home Depot and putting together the craft services table.
Next: Part V – Production Begins
Casting in Los Angeles instead of Phoenix opened up a whole world of options. As I mentioned before, we needed a specific look for the four roles we were casting – i.e. they were a Latino family. Not only did they have to look like a husband, wife, brother, and sister, they also had to be (or look like) a certain ethnicity. That made it tough. In Phoenix, we would’ve had to settle based on the responses we received. In Los Angeles, we had options.
It’s so hard to find that impossible combination – someone who has the right look and delivers a good performance. Sometimes there’s an actor who is amazing, but might not have the right look to fit with the rest of the cast. Or, an actor who looks exactly as I imagined when writing, but might have an accent that’s too strong or not be just the right fit. By the time we started holding auditions in LA, we were in a bit of a time crunch before we started shooting. We weren’t going to settle, but it meant the possibly of auditioning right up until the first day of production. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. We were so lucky in being able to find amazing actors for the roles with plenty of time to spare.
When I’m writing a script, I have a vision of the movie in my head. I imagine a certain look for a role, and that was made easier in this case because we had two roles cast as I was writing, Vikram’s and Olivia’s. Unfortunately one of those people didn’t commit and we had to recast that role. It made casting for Olivia even tougher because I wrote the part with nuances of a certain person in mind, so the first thing I had to do was let that go and make sure I imagined those auditioning as Olivia, not as the original actress.
It’s interesting and terrifying to see words I’ve written performed live for the first time. There were two really cool things that happened. First, I saw a part come to life exactly as I had imagined it while writing. It was a relief to see a scene work when the lines were delivered. Second, I saw lines interpreted in a completely different way than I had imagined…and I kind of liked it. I love seeing how one line can be read so many different ways.
The other thing I learned is that what you see in person can be completely different than what you see on video. I went home after the auditions with certain perpections about each performance and I was blown away by how different some of them looked when I watched them on TV, for better and worse. In one case in particular, we were very torn between two excellent choices and eventually it came down to not just the audition, but also their reel and available content online.
The table read was the icing on the cake. We felt really good about our cast and once we were all in a room together, reading through the entire series, it finally felt like, “yeah, we can do this.” Now all we had to do was make sure everything else was set to go for the first day of production.
Next: Part IV – Prep
Script was done, days were requested off work, audition notices were posted. Things were moving smoothly the last week of January, planning to shoot in Arizona the third week of February. First of many lessons I learned – I should’ve scheduled sooner. As soon as I did the math I knew that even if I shot from the moment I arrived, we weren’t getting the series wrapped in a week. It would’ve required at least two additional weekends driving out to Phoenix to get it done. And that’s if I allowed zero days of prep out there. Things were suddenly a lot more complicated.
To make matters worse, we had hardly any submittals for our auditions. I knew resources weren’t as abundant in Phoenix, but I really have a soft spot for my hometown and I really, really wanted to shoot in Jerome. Just look at the place. It’s beautiful.
Part of the problem is that the cast is primarily a Latino family. I wanted to try something different. There’s no Spanish, there’s no cultural references, they just so happen to be Latino. Who says an attractive woman with an accent can’t be an astrophysicist? I wanted to break some stereotypes with my cast, but that meant a smaller pool of possible actors.
We were left with a serious decision on our hands two days before we planned to drive out for auditions. We could go spend a weekend in Phoenix to audition the two confirmed actors even though we had four parts to fill. Or, we could scrap the entire Phoenix plan and shoot in LA. Either way, the clock was ticking. We opted for LA.
The problem with LA is that it’s intimidating. I figured in Phoenix I’d find other hopefuls looking to gain some experience and we could all learn together. I felt if I made mistakes out there, it would be okay. But over here, I knew it was a different pool of people. Everyone has more experience than I do (well, that’s how it felt at the time). I had nightmares of people not even being interested in the project. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
The canceled trip to Phoenix bought us some time to get audition notices posted here, find new locations, and rewrite the script. I pushed my time off from the day job back by another week and we decided that if we were shooting local, we could shoot over consecutive weekends without a problem. That way the first half of my week off could be spent on prep. Those few extra days of prep were so helpful in being ready to go on the first day of shooting.
The script changes actually made a huge difference. I really didn’t like the original midpoint episode at all. There was a lame chase scene that instead became a cat and mouse game around a house. I hated to lose Jerome, but we gained access to a local house with character. We hardly had to change a thing in production design. It’s like the house was made for the series. We were also lucky in finding other locations all nearby.
In the end, we realized the perks and resources of staying local far outweighed the stress of shooting out of state - especially when it came to casting.
Next: Part III – Casting
I knew I wanted the web series to be sci-fi. I had an idea floating around that involved doppelgangers and time travel, so I built it from there. I originally imagined a more serious tone, a la Primer. I started researching Einstein-Rosen bridges and related material, wanting it to be more scientific. I soon realized that my natural voice started creeping into the story though, so it became a little quirker and had a little more humor than planned. I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that I dozed off when rewatching Primer (in fairness, it was a late night and I still love the movie), but I couldn’t stop watching episodes of Doctor Who or Firefly that I put on for further inspiration.
I started brainstorming possible stories that could be shot with no budget. I worked backwards from this criteria:
- Minimal locations – a house, neighborhood exteriors, places that I knew I could get for free
- Outdoor locations - nobody would bother us in the middle of nowhere and a majority of the scenes lit in natural light since we wouldn’t be renting equipment
- Minimal cast/crew – Even on a low budget, the more mouths to feed each day really adds up. Needed to keep number of people around as low as possible.
I tossed around a few ideas between other work over the next few months and then banged out the first three episodes in August. Those first three episodes had an interesting concept, but I had created a complex story with more questions than answers. I needed to figure out the mess I had created and make the rules to the world. This required some more research and a lot of confusing timelines to make sure I left no holes in the time travel. I had many nights staring at a blank screen, many late nights of frustration, a few “a-ha!” moments, and then, finally, I had the story. I mapped out a plan far beyond the initial season, because it was a lot of fun and because there were so many different way to go. Then I sat down and wrote the rest.
The remaining episodes were written in December and January. I gave that completed season 1 draft to trusted readers, revised, and had a presentable version before February. It was only when I switched to Producer mode that I realized I had become so entrenched in the story that I had neglected some of my initial rules. It was a much more ambitious plan than I thought it would be. Further, the entire season came in at 57 pages. What began as an idea to shoot something simpler than a short or feature was suddenly a sci-fi with special effects, action, multiple locations, and a good number of shooting days.
When I thought “web series”, I imagined how short one episode was, without thinking of what a total season looked like. Did that make me reconsider? Not at all. We were filming this.
Next: Part II – Changing states: AZ to CA
I was tired of waiting. Two years had passed since Pá had screened at festivals. There had been a lot of talk, a lot of progress, and even a few more times on sets. But no final products that were mine. I had a lot more scripts and a lot of potential projects that could take off at any moment, but I was tired of waiting for someone else to determine my destiny. So I decided, “why not make a small project in the meantime?” I sat down and created a document titled, “webisode brainstorm.” That was last April. In the last year, the biggest thing I’ve learned is that shooting one webisode isn’t so bad. Shooting an 11 episode sci-fi web series without a budget isn’t much easier than shooting a feature. What was I thinking?
I was thinking I needed to shut up and film – to put my money where my mouth is. Learn by doing. So I committed to making a project and figuring things out as I went. So far, it’s been a crash course in producing – I’ve learned what works, what doesn’t, how many jobs are too many for one person, and which jobs I prefer over others. I wanted this project to happen, so I told people about it. The more people I told, the more committed I was to shooting it.
Every step where I had to make a commitment – buying equipment, holding auditions, casting talent, hiring crew – was an uphill battle to not back out. The closer I came to having a real project, the more terrified I was about not screwing it up. It’s easy to talk about a potential project. It’s intimidating to know there’s real people and money you’re responsible to. I kept waiting for a moment where I was called out as a fraud, until I finally accepted that 1) I wasn’t and 2) I was working with some amazing people, who were committed to the project and to me. When the first day finally arrived, all the preparation paid off. That’s not to say things didn’t go wrong. They certainly did. Everything that can go wrong will on a low budget shoot. But we were ready.
Right now, we’re about halfway through shooting. We started on March 4. I took an entire week off from my day job in order to make sure everything was ready. Since I’m now out of time off from the day job, we’re finishing up our last few days over weekends in April. The web series, “Chutes and Ladders” will premiere this summer. There’s going to be two aspects to the build up of that premiere – internal and external.
This is the internal part. I’m going to document as much of the process as possible. All the ups and downs, what worked, what didn’t, and how exhausting and awesome it has been. I may eventually cross post these entries at the official site (which will go live in the next few weeks), but right now I’m undecided.
The external part will involve the actual world of the story. This is a lot more than a web series. You’ll see what I’m talking about in the coming weeks, but needless to say I can’t wait for the different things we’re going to try and for seeing how some of these ideas play out. I hope it works, I’ll be sad if it doesn’t, but either way, it’s going to be a lot of fun and a great experience. That’s all you can really ask for, right?
Next Up – Part I: The Story