Archive for 2009

A still from "The Road Ahead"

The Road Ahead: The First Green Long March will be screening Thursday November 12th at Bryant University as part of their China Seminar Series. Producer, Michael Raisler will introduce the film and be present for a Q&A session following the screening. The film is being screened in collaboration with the Golden Jasmine Chinese Film Festival (which is a partner of the Rhode Island International Film Festival) and the Department of Science and Technology of Bryant University. For more details on this free event click here.

The film will also be screening Thursday November 19th at Colgate University. Producer Michael Raisler will be present for a Q&A session following the screening. For more details on this free event, click here.

A post by Courtney Hope

A post by Courtney Hope

My father is the king of coupons. If there’s a deal, he’s there. If there’s a sale, a sample, a miniature bottle of shampoo left unattended on a cart in a hotel, he is thrilled. So, being my father’s daughter, I too am tickled pink at the thought of discounts and free stuff. And the best way to obtain these wonderful free things? Well, make a movie, of course.

As someone with years of practice convincing people to hand over their goods, I thought I’d share some tips for how to get your artistic little hands on as many free things as possible. So, from the girl who learned from the very best:

1. Have something tangible. Print some postcards, or fancy looking business cards or make a prospectus (remember, you can acquire some of these things for free too). Having something to show for your project means a. it’s real, b. you’re serious, and c. they can’t forget about you.

2. Pick targets wisely. Do a little research and find out who donates to other films, arts organizations, groups related to the topic of your film, etc. Or find out if your parents/rich uncle/roommate’s cousin/lead actress knows the guy who owns (fill in the blank). And go to places you frequent, places you make the products you LOVE. It’s easier to ask for something when you can faun all over it. Businesses want to keep their most loyal fans the happiest, so keep that in mind. And another word of advice: try to avoid giant corporations because they already give a percentage of their profits to someone else. And you’re an indie filmmaker, so find other indie people to help you out. They will understand what you’re trying to do and are more likely to be supportive because of it. If you’re filming in a location outside of New York City or LA, find places that are local and proud of it. If you sell your film as something good for the community, they’re more likely to get onboard with free things and word of mouth. So, once you have your list of places to hit up…

3. Pick your times wisely. You’re going to want to speak with the manager or owner. If you waste your pitch on the hostess, you’ll feel foolish when she tells you she’s “going to find the manager,” but really you hear her laughing about you to her friend in the kitchen. So, figure out when the person in charge will be in. What time is that? Probably before the “dinner rush.” That being said, don’t prance yourself into a restaurant at 8:30pm on Saturday night and expect anyone to listen to you. If the place looks crazy busy, go back another time. Same for if the place is empty. You don’t want to ask for free things when the place isn’t making any cash. And it’s more awkward to walk out with a rejection when you’re the only one there too.

4. Know what you want and what they get in exchange. If you want a meal for fifteen people Friday afternoon, tell them (but make sure you’re asking for things at least three weeks in advance!). If they ask how they can help and you don’t have an answer, a. you look pretty lame, b. they’re quickly losing interest, and c. you feel like a fool. Start your pitch telling them you’re looking for donations, but give them the chance to ask what exactly that means. This engages them in a conversation. Much easier to trap them this way. But also know what they’re getting in return. Credit on your awesome film that will be distributed to millions of people the world over and your crew will just LOVE their product and buy it all the time. And you LOVE their product and will continue to be a diehard fan, especially if they give you boxes of their treats for nothing. And you’ll add their company’s name to your website. It’s a win-win! You feed/house/dress/impress your crew and they have a new marketing outlet that costs them next-to-nothing.

5. Practice your pitch. Even if you’re only practicing with yourself in the mirror or to your goldfish, it’s good to be prepared. It’s scary to ask a stranger for a hand out (remember asking the scary neighbors on the corner with the big German Sheppard to buy cookies and popcorn for Boy/Girl Scouts?) Just remember, you don’t have a huge organization behind you this time, so you really have to sell yourself and your film. Now, once your pitch is perfected, you’re good to go.

6. Dress the part. It’s okay to look like a bum on set, but no one’s going to want to hand over free things to you if you don’t look professional. Their donation is an investment. They are marketing their product through your film, both in your credits and on set to your crew. If you haven’t showered, they won’t expect that you’re going anywhere with your film or career and they’ll assume your crewmembers probably smell too.

7. Remember the name of the person you spoke with. Write it down when you leave. Even if the manager/owner wasn’t in, know who talked to you. This way, you can call/email the person in charge and say, “Yes, I spoke with Emily at your (insert store name) on Sunday and she told me I should contact you about…” It makes it more personal, proves you actually went to the store and you can make it sound like you and Emily are best buds. And why wouldn’t you want to donate to your best worker’s filmmaker friend. It’s just a couple baked goods, right? (wink wink).

8. Don’t be shocked by rejection. Have something to say if they tell you “no.” Don’t cry, don’t pout, don’t tell them to go to hell. Just tell them very nicely that you understand, and it’s no big deal. Then ask if you could just put some postcards out on the counter. Most likely, they’ll let you lay out some postcards. You get some free advertising space and it won’t be so awkward leaving, because you still got something out of it. And, you can always boycott them for the rest of your life, too… (just kidding… or am I?)

9. Follow up. Even if the person you spoke with told you that the whole premise of your film sucks, email them anyway. Thank them for taking the time to meet with you. You can always hit them up again next year when you make a film, or send them a nice little update when your film wins the Academy Award. (Remember, living well is the best revenge.) If the person did offer you something, thank them in the email/phone call and reiterate what you think the agreement was. It’s important you’re both on the same page so a. they don’t think you’re ungrateful and b. you can plan accordingly. Give them a date that you’re going to call/email them again to check in. If you don’t remind them about the meal they’re donating, don’t expect it ready when your PA shows up in a month and a half. Show some respect – they’ve got more to worry about than your movie (I know, it’s shocking) and while they’re happy to help, they’ll appreciate a reminder and think you’re uber-professional.

10. Give them the credit they deserve. If someone donates to your film, whether it’s cash or props or locations or food, etc. send a thank you note. Try to plan ahead and have some thank you notes on set so your cast and crew can all sign it. Not only does it make you look really thoughtful, but it’s more likely to end up on the wall of the restaurant/café/main lobby, etc. This means more free publicity for your film! Then make sure to email an update about the film during post-production. People who don’t work in film don’t understand how fricken long post can be. They’ll assume you forgot about them and tear down your awesome thank you note and light it on fire. Well, maybe nothing that extreme, but you’ll look rude. Remember, they helped make your film possible; the least you can do is keep them in the loop. Let them know when the film will be ready. Then invite them to the premiere, screening at your mom’s place or send them a DVD. Everyone loves seeing their name in the credits. And if your film – I’m sorry, WHEN you’re film plays in festivals or finds a distributor, let them know. Remember, they want people to see their logo or name. If your film plays to sold out audiences the world over, they’re not only happy for you, but they a. now have some bragging rights and will tell their friends (who might just buy a DVD!) and b. they know they’re getting free advertising. This way, when you make your next film, they might give you five cases of soda instead of two.

By following the ten steps/rules above, I have acquired donated things for my film Wild Birds from: Comfort Suites, Pop Chips, A-Treat Beverages, Wild Flower Café, XL Graphics, Boylan’s Bottling, Company, Chipotle, Hub Wilson Photography, Yocco’s, Cold Stone, The Goosey Gander Restaurant, Civic Theatre of Allentown, Sal’s Pizzeria, Foo Joy and Gallery Bar. You can visit the “Thank You Page” on the Wild Birds site with links to these awesome people’s websites.

These methods are tried and true and the above donations not only make my film possible, but they also make my father, the Coupon King, proud. Remember, the best things in life are free!

RFF 2010 Fellow Courtney Hope recently graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts with a degree in Film & Television. While a student at NYU, she wrote and directed several short films. Hope’s thesis film Sex & German Grammar, which was awarded the prize for Best Cinematography at NYU’s Fusion Film Festival, also screened at the Southside Film Festival and the Palm Springs Shortfest. Hope has also shown films at the London Super Short Film Festival and the Reed Media Festival, and took home a prize at the 2007 Southside Image Over Words competition. Hope recently completed her first independent short, Another First.

A post by Courtney Hope

A post by Courtney Hope

Here I stand outside a building in the West Village, staring at a door without a knob. I look up at the building. How am I supposed to get in? Fortunately, someone’s leaving the building as I stand looking perplexedly at the door.

“First time here?” he asks.


The Man holds the door open and I slowly step into the building. Now what? The Man holding the door notices my confusion – or awkwardness – and asks whom I’m there to see, as if I’d just stepped into a doctor’s office.

“Jeremy.” Should I give his last names too? Who is this guy anyway?

“He’s upstairs.”

I don’t see any stairs. What a strange place I’ve just walked into. Must be some sort of trap.

“The stairs. They’re through there. Just go straight back and they’re on your right.” This guy must think I’m an idiot

“Thanks.” I follow the stranger’s directions and walk down a hall covered in movie posters. Aha! Stairs! I climb the staircase until I reach an open door. Is this it? I step through, my boots stomping into the room. No one. Great. It was a trap. Where am I? I peak around the corner and see a woman. She, like everyone else apparently, can tell I have no idea what I’m doing or where I am.

“Hi. Who are you looking for?”

“Jeremy?” Ugh. I should just go home.

“Oh.” She gestures to a half-wall from which Jeremy pops up. We shake hands.

“Yeah, I didn’t even hear you come in.”

Great, now he thinks I’m some creep who slithered into the building.

“Well, you have a very confusing entrance…” Oh boy. Why am I so awkward?

I follow Jeremy into what looks like a living room in the office and sit. Maybe I should have brought coffee so I’d have something to do or hold or just to give the general sense of importance. Too late. No coffee. No prop. Just me in this chair with a copy of my script, which I pull out of my bag only to find the edges have begun to curl. Great.

“First of all, congratulations on the grant. It’s really a great program.”

“Thank you,” I try to muster my confidence.

“So, tell me about your film.”

Oh no. Pitching. That’s the worst.

“Well, my film is about two little girls who run away into the woods from an abusive home to be wild.” I wonder if it sounds convincing anymore. I must have said this exact sentence about a thousand times by now.

Jeremy asks where the story came from, how I envision the film looking, and some basic production questions. The standard questions, for which I have my well rehearsed answers.

“So tell me about the gun in your script.”

“Oh, well, what about it exactly…” Uh oh.

“Why is it there?” Never a good sign.

I explain that the gun is an extension of the father, that it represents that you can never really escape your upbringing, but it’s how you use what you’ve lived through that tells who you are, blah blahblah.

“It seems that you don’t really need it.”

Um… What? That’s what the whole movie’s about… I’m not really sure how to respond to this.

Jeremy explains that he could show me at least 40 student films with a gun. Ouch. Well, this isn’t a student film, so… Then he asks me again what the film is about.

“Two little girls who run away into the woods from an abusive home to be wild.” Same thing I said before.

“If that’s what the film is about, then you need to focus on that. The gun’s kind of distracting.”

“Oh. I guess…” I am thoroughly impressed. This guy’s good.

“Maybe they take something else from their dad that they can fight over, but there are other ways to show their relationship, I think.”

Jeremy gives me some suggestions about what other props might come from the sort of home the girls come from that are a bit more neutral than a gun. He casually mentions that raining night exteriors are probably also unnecessary. This also being a large part of the draft, it takes a minute to digest all this.

To make an already long story short, Jeremy wanted me to rewrite most of the script, but without losing what the film was really about. And he understood the film as a story about sisters who are pushed to do something drastic. So, as I left the office (much easier to exit than enter), I wasn’t sure how I really felt about this Jeremy character. I agreed that the film needed some simplification, but his suggestions seemed a bit extreme.

While thinking about the notes Jeremy gave me, I started scratching some notes on my crinkled copy of the script. After replacing the gun with a lighter, transforming the father into a mother, and turning night into day, I realized that maybe he had a point. The film is character driven, and inherently dramatic without all the extras I’d written in.

The most important thing I took away from my meeting with Jeremy wasn’t anything he said, or even how to open a door without a knob, but rather, I realized that the only way to make a film is to surround yourself with people who really care about it enough to tell you when it sucks. When Jeremy forced me rethink my script, I realized that the notes from my producer and editor and production designer all were crucial to making the film. If others aren’t invested in the script, no one will invest in the finished film either. One of the most important things for any filmmaker to do is to listen, take advice, and adjust the script instead of simply explaining away the problems that exist. There’s no such thing as a finished script until it’s picture locked.

RFF 2010 Fellow Courtney Hope (mentored by Jeremy Kipp Walker) recently graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts with a degree in Film & Television. While a student at NYU, she wrote and directed several short films. Hope’s thesis film Sex & German Grammar, was awarded the prize for Best Cinematography at NYU’s Fusion Film Festival and screened at the Southside Film Festival and the Palm Springs Shortfest. Hope has also shown films at the London Super Short Film Festival and the Reed Media Festival, and took home a prize at the 2007 Southside Image Over Words competition. Hope recently completed her first independent short, Another First. Courtney’s RFF Film, Wild Birds, is about two young sisters who enter the woods determined to be “wild.” As the story unfolds, we begin to understand what they are running from, and see the power dynamic between them shift as the younger sister develops second thoughts about their plans.


A post by Nadia Hallgren

My RFF short documentary, Love Lockdown, was inspired by a radio show on Power 105.1, New York’s hip hop station. On Sunday nights from 10pm to 2am, DJ Cherry Martinez turns her show over to New York’s prison population, offering an opportunity for loved ones of prisoners to profess love and support through radio shout-outs. I wanted to tell a story about one or more couples and their love and commitment during this type of separation, and began my search by sitting with Cherry during the radio show on several occasions.

After the women gave their shout-outs, the DJ would transfer the call to me and I’d explain the documentary I was working on. While pre-screening women over the phone, I was looking for someone who sounded open and friendly and who was sincere and passionate about her relationship with her loved one. I was looking for a good love story, so when a girl would talk about her partner in a sincere and loving way, I felt I had a good character.

I found many compelling potential subjects in the women who called into the show, and when the I started the Reach Film Fellowship, I was in the process of trying to narrow my options down and make a choice. I was very excited to meet my mentor Annie Sundberg (The Devil Came on Horseback). I hoped she could help me sort out this and a few other big-picture decisions I was facing with my film.

Annie is a very busy woman (working on many of her own film projects), and I know her time is valuable, so I wanted to present my ideas to her in a clear, concise manner and be very focused when discussing the difficulties I was having. At our first meeting I found Annie to be very nice and truly interested in my project, and I liked her practical way of thinking. She advised me on the budgeting of my film and encouraged me to save as much money for post-production as I could, given that I work in production (as a documentary DP) and can do a lot of that labor myself.

One of the first things we addressed together was the struggle I was having choosing who my main characters would be. I know how important it is to chose characters your audience will feel a connection with, and that they are likable and expressive enough to carry an entire story. I was leaning towards one woman in particular, Shashonna, because she had a great personality and an interesting story, but I was afraid to commit. I could have searched forever in uncertainty, but Annie reassured me that my first instincts were correct and to stick with the woman to whom I felt most connected. I took her advice and it has helped greatly.

The more I began to focus on Shashonna, the more confident I was that I had made the right decision. I had only 7 days to shoot my previous documentary, Sanza Hanza (about a group of young men who are train surfers in Soweto, South Africa), and following teenagers that were being chased by cops was very difficult. In Shashonna I had found a local story where I could shoot as much as I needed and develop a real relationship with the person in my film over time. She actually lives across the street from me so I can shoot her any time a situation arises, and it is also easy just to hang out as friends. We have developed a great relationship this way, and I have also been able to capture intimate moments with her and her children. By sharing an inside look into her life and how she struggles to keep her family together, I hope to make my film stronger and develop a deeper connection with the audience.

Similar to the struggle Anthony described in his earlier blog post, I was also having trouble narrowing down and focusing on a limited number of story/thematic threads to follow. When telling a story on relationships and prison there are many potential angles of focus: the amount of effort, time and money it takes to be in contact with a prisoner or the long-term effects of family contact and how it can help a prisoner through his bid. I could also pose the larger question of why so many young men in America are in prison. All these things are interesting but were not necessarily the story I wanted to tell. Talking with Annie (as well as observing Shashonna’s life closely) helped me hone in on the emotional center of my story, and it became very clear that rather than looking to larger sociological questions, I would focus on the communication between loved ones and prisoners, especially through the radio show itself.

I also found RFF’s workshop on Post-Production with editor Jeff Marcello (Planet B-Boy) to be particularly helpful. We got into the details of how different editors approach documentary storytelling, which helped me think through and identify some of the qualities I could search for in my own editor. For example, I learned that some editors like to work from transcripts while others don’t. To me, because my film is so focused on communication, using transcripts seems to be the most thorough way of putting a story together, so that was one work habit I wanted in my editor. I was also introduced to a film called October Country by Cinereach grantees Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher. The editing in this film was emotional and very stylized, and I decided I wanted my film to achieve a similar tone.

Looking ahead, I’m focusing on telling my story in the best way possible. Getting access to courts and prisons will be essential for me to document the prisoners’ perspectives in contrast to that of women on the outside. This is likely to be very challenging because courts and prisons usually shoot you down right away; never taking “no” for an answer will be key.

RFF 2010 Fellow Nadia Hallgren (mentored by Annie Sundberg) is a director and cinematographer from the Bronx, NY.  Her camera credits include the Academy Award nominated and 2008 Sundance Grand Jury prize winner, Trouble the Water.  Hallgren has shot for a variety of directors, including Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, and she has traveled over five continents making films and working with prominent figures such as Dan Rather, Desmond Tutu, Britney Spears and Cameron Diaz.  Her first short, Sanza Hanza, screened last year at Slamdance and SilverDocs.

October Country3

A huge congratulations to Cinereach grant recipient OCTOBER COUNTRY, a documentary film co-directed by Michael Palmieri & Donal Mosher. Their film about Mosher’s upstate-NY family just received 5 nominations for the 2010 Cinema Eye Awards!

The Cinema Eye Honors for Nonfiction Filmmaking recognize and honor exemplary craft and innovation in nonfiction film. Cinema Eye’s mission is to advocate for, recognize and promote the highest commitment to rigor and artistry in the nonfiction field. The Cinema Eye Awards Ceremony will be held January 15th 2010, at The Times Center, New York City.

Rooftop Films is accepting entries for their 2010 Summer Series

Submit your movies! We are currently accepting submissions for the 2010 Rooftop Films Summer Series. Submit your films and videos now and participate in one of the most unforgettable, unique, filmmaker-friendly, independent film events in the world! You can submit directly to us by downloading the submission form here or you can submit via Withoutabox.

The 2010 Summer Series will run from May through September and will feature more than 200 daring new films, all screened outdoors, in front of big, loyal audiences in parks, on boats, and on rooftops overlooking the greatest city in the world. More than 25,000 people attended Rooftop screenings in 2009, making it one of the biggest festivals for underground films in the world. We show films of all genres, formats, and lengths, as long as they’re daring, creative, and unique.

Earlybird: $9 – December 5, 2009.
Regular: $15, ($10 for WAB members) – January 15, 2010.
Late: $20, ($15 for WAB) – February 15, 2010.
Without A Box Extended: $20 for WAB members – March 1, 2010

Plus, if you submit a work to Rooftop Films you automatically get 2 free tickets to any Rooftop Summer Series show (an $18 value).

You can mail any submissions to: Rooftop Films / PMB 401 / 285 Fifth Avenue / Brooklyn, NY 11215

If you have any questions regarding submissions, please email program director Dan Nuxoll at: submit * at * rooftopfilms * dot * com.

Rooftop Films
Underground Movies Outdoors

A post by Gabriel Long

A post by Gabriel Long

At the start of the Reach Film Fellowship, there were two important aspects of my film, Brothers, I was hoping to get help with. First, I didn’t feel confident about how I would handle casting and directing young actors (my two main characters are children). I know that getting a natural performance from a child, one that doesn’t feel self-conscious, is going to be key to my film. Second, I felt that my script could be improved, but couldn’t decide what to change.

Casting and Directing Child Actors
During our re
cent advising workshop with Writer/Director Tze Chun (Children of Invention), there were some very useful takeaways related to casting and working with children.

More from his workshop will be posted on this blog soon, I think, but one piece of advice he gave was particularly useful to me. Tze said that when casting a role, it’s critical to keep in mind the specific demands of the part. A very natural young actor who doesn’t have a great deal of acting ability can work well for a role that doesn’t contain many highly emotional scenes. If the character needs to display a great deal of strong emotion, however, more acting ability is necessary even if this means sacrificing naturalness to some degree.

Directing Child Actors Workshop with Tze Chun

Directing Child Actors Workshop with Tze Chun

When I entered the casting process and had to begin making decisions, I took Tze’s advice and looked for the right balance of acting ability versus naturalness.  We auditioned 20 actors for the two open roles and had four, two actors per character, come in for callbacks.

At callbacks, I was careful to go over the most emotionally subtle parts of the script several times to see what each actor could bring to the moments. In this script there are no highly emotional scenes that call for crying, or throwing a tantrum, so I decided I could err on the side of naturalness over acting experience, while making sure that the actors were skilled enough to understated and convey the emotions of the scenes.

Also critical to me, was looking at the chemistry between each pair of actors. My two actors will be playing brothers and the story hinges on the subtle interactions that make up their relationship.

Now that my film is cast, I am looking ahead at how I will work with my actors in rehearsal and on set. In my discussions with my mentor, Laurie Collyer (Sherrybaby), Laurie has really emphasized using improvisation as a lead-in to scripted scenes in order to get a more natural performance from child actors. Tze also advised that I give my young actors a set of actions to execute whenever possible, rather than a single action, in order to keep them from over-emphasizing each one. I’ll definitely be employing these tactics.

Refining My Script
There were a lot of things I liked about my script going into this process, but in some ways I felt like I wanted to make it better. The story didn’t feel as compelling or engaging as I wanted it to. It was tight, but a bit predictable.

In terms of re-writing, however, I felt I was at a bit of a dead end. I felt that every element of my script was so connected to the whole piece that unless I overhauled it, it would be difficult to improve.

During my second meeting with Laurie, we analyzed my script in depth. Based on her advice, I did a complete re-write of the script, viewing it as an exercise rather than an attempt to come up with a different story. She thought it might free me up to continue improving on what I had.

The idea of writing an “exercise” script was very freeing and allowed me to get past my attachment to the interconnectedness of the previous draft. The resulting draft wound up involving the same location, characters, and subject matter, but was very different and significantly better. I allowed myself to completely re-imagine scenes with the knowledge that if they didn’t work I didn’t need to use them in the final version.

Rather than taking the best elements of the exercise script and melding them into the older draft, I did the reverse. I ended up taking the moments in the older draft that I thought held the essence of the story and constructed a new narrative around them. The end result was a more natural and compelling story.

RFF 2010 Fellow Gabriel Long (mentored by Laurie Collyer) has done extensive work in both narrative and documentary film. Two of his documentary projects were nationally broadcast by Current TV. Swimming New York City documents a swimming race around Governor’s Island, and The Art of Sticks offers a portrait of outdoor sculptor Patrick Doherty. He has also completed seven narrative short films, most recently Adán, which follows a schoolteacher as he travels from his home in Ecuador to New York City, trying to find a friend in the wake of a school shooting. Long recently moved to New York City where he works as an assistant director, editor, and writer. Gabriel’s RFF Film, Brothers, is about two young boys living in the shadow of a hot-tempered father. As the younger brother grapples with his sexual identity and the other becomes his unlikely protector.

A post by Courtney Hope

A post by Courtney Hope

To be perfectly honest, I’m not a big fan of nature. I grew up in Pennsylvania, in a county with the most parks per capita ratio in the country. I went to a private school with trees and lawns and a rose garden. My parents forced me to go to camp and sleep in a cabin – for which I may never forgive them. But when the time came for me to choose my own setting, I chose the bleakest landscape of all – New York City. And I’ve managed to avoid the great outdoors ever since.

So why then would I chose to set my RFF Film, Wild Birds, entirely in the woods – in the middle of November – in the hometown where all those trees once suffocated the city girl in me? I was asking myself some of these same questions as I dragged my key crew into the heart of the forest that sometimes haunts my nightmares.

My DP, Carole has the exact opposite opinion of woods than I do. She can’t get enough trees and berries and acorns – and other strange things she picks up as we walk.

“You sure that’s edible?” I ask as she sinks her teeth into something she found on the ground.

She explains that the acorns she’s chomping on can be made into flour if you can gather enough of them. I can’t help but to roll my eyes. Why would anyone ever do that?

My Production Designer Emmeline, also has an affinity for the woods. But she’s from Vermont, where that sort of attitude is mandatory. She collects leaves and twigs and seed to flatten into the notebook she’s brought with her. I really don’t fit in with these woods enthusiasts.

So here I am, wandering off trails in the woods searching for the strangest looking trees we can find. And there really are some crazy-looking spots in these woods.

“This place is like an evil Disney forest,” Carole notices.

An illustration from the Wild Birds team

An illustration from the Wild Birds team

“Yeah, I know. Woods are terrifying,” which leads us into a discussion of what kind of woods the characters try to hide in. Are they nice woods that are easy to live in, mean woods that hurt the girls, uncaring woods that watch the girls struggle without offering any guidance? We decide that the woods are like their mother (who is omnipresent, though we never meet her on screen), somewhat cruel, but unintentionally so. They’re just wild unsympathetic woods, but they wouldn’t go out of their way to harm the girls. So it’s settled, abusive-mother-woods. That’s what we’re after. This changes how we analyze each attractive patch of nature we come across.

Emmeline smashes some berries into her notebook. “Look at all these bruise colors. These are great.”

Carole points out some poison ivy. “Let’s not shoot in poison ivy. That’s the last thing we need is itchy actors.”

“Wait, this yellow leaf? Did I touch it? Did anyone notice if I touched this poison ivy?” No one’s noticed. Great. Now I’m going to have poison ivy. How did I grow up in Pennsylvania and never learn what poison ivy was. I was a girl scout… for a year…

Wild Birds location scout photo

Wild Birds location scout photo

Then we come upon my favorite place in these woods, a strange start of a building that was never finished. It’s just a corner of bricks that stick up under a tree. We decide this is our first choice for the dead bird scene. It has the right sort of half-warmth of home and half-empty and uncaring feel to it.

Then we find other strange pipes and old wells sticking out of the ground throughout the place. These woods are picture ready!

At the suggestion of a local film enthusiast, my crew and I drive to an abandoned amusement park in Easton, PA. We were told it flooded in the 90s and was never repaired. On the way there, Emmeline spots an empty birds nest near the side of the road. She demands we pull over so she can pick it up. I take this nest as a good omen.

When we arrive at the amusement park, the gates are locked. But it looks like the sort of place teenagers would have a way into, and after a quick search, we find a place where we can sneak through the fence. This place is definitely a popular trespassing zone, with trash everywhere.

We walk through this abandoned amusement park and all we can talk about is the horror film we should shoot there one day. What kind of creepy things go on here at night? I don’t want to think about it. I’m already afraid of everything.

I loudly try to focus the conversation off serial killing clowns and back on the film we’re actually shooting.

We decide that most of the amusement park is unusable because it’s too obvious – placing abused children in a dilapidated place that represents childhood would feel clichéd. But in the back of the park are a few shed-like structures that seem to be falling apart. “Does this look like it could be in the woods?”

“We could use it for the beginning,” Carole chimes in.

“Or a rain location.” I make a face. Please, don’t let it rain!

“Oh right, rain locations…”

And with that in mind, we walked quickly out of the haunted park back to the safety of our cars.

We found some great locations, took a ton of photos, and survived a few hours in the woods without anyone succumbing to poison ivy. It was a good day and a good scout, even if it did take place outside.

RFF 2010 Fellow Courtney Hope (mentored by Jeremy Kipp Walker) recently graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts with a degree in Film & Television. While a student at NYU, she wrote and directed several short films. Hope’s thesis film Sex & German Grammar, was awarded the prize for Best Cinematography at NYU’s Fusion Film Festival and screened at the Southside Film Festival and the Palm Springs Shortfest. Hope has also shown films at the London Super Short Film Festival and the Reed Media Festival, and took home a prize at the 2007 Southside Image Over Words competition. Hope recently completed her first independent short, Another First. Courtney’s RFF Film, Wild Birds, is about two young sisters who enter the woods determined to be “wild.” As the story unfolds, we begin to understand what they are running from, and see the power dynamic between them shift as the younger sister develops second thoughts about their plans.

Anthony Morrison

A post by Anthony Morrison

Three feet tall and rising; a classroom of two and three year olds is buzzing. The New York Child Resource Centers in the south Bronx and Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn offer early intervention services for children diagnosed on the autism spectrum. I visited the school once in March, then again in May, meeting with the owners and principals, couple Michelle and Dr. Fred Weinberg. Together we brainstormed potential stories for Bye, the documentary that would eventually become my entry into Cinereach’s Reach Film Fellowship. Michelle joked there were a million stories within the classroom.

In those two short months separating our visits, there was visible development and learning; kids now saying their first words, some transitioning out of special education into traditional kindergarten classrooms. In October, as I returned to the school, I struggled to choose one perspective as my focus for the film: whose angle on this story provides the best frame? There are Principals Michelle and Fred, there are the therapists who guide the students, there are the kids themselves (some of whom are recently diagnosed and are new to the classroom). How do I decide which will work best within the time constraints of a 5-10 minute piece? I know I can’t follow them all.

In my last short doc, specificity of perspective was a problem. I was lucky enough to travel to South Africa and co-direct a documentary about the role of protest music in the current struggle against HIV. We shot for forty-one days, collecting over one-hundred and fifty hours of footage. While in production, these numbers were confidence boosters. We followed fifteen different characters but only for three days each. A part of me felt that there must be something buried within that large amount of footage that would give us a compelling narrative – each of the MiniDV tapes like little bricks in a foundation. I found out in the editing room, however, that too much footage, covering too much ground, can sink a project. The overwhelming weight of hundreds of tapes made a final cut seem impossible. Our content was extensive, but didn’t go quite deep enough into any one storyline or character to build the kind of story I had hoped for.

Through the Reach Fellowship I was lucky enough to be matched with Mad Hot Ballroom Director Marilyn Agrelo (my mentor) and Yoni Brook (consulting producer of RFF and a Cinereach grantee for his films Bronx Princess and A Son’s Sacrifice). These two have helped me narrow my focus by challenging me to write a defining statement for the film; part artist statement, part hypothesis. This statement should guide my focus as I pick and pursue an angle into the world I have chosen to tell a story about. I made more visits to both centers and spent time observing therapy in action – wrestling all along to find a simple phrase or question that could guide my efforts to capture the action. My first attempts were oversimplifications: Was this a drama about the intersection of poverty and autism? Was this a political story about families fighting for educational rights for kids on the spectrum? Although valid questions, they are very broad, too much for a ten minute cut. I could already see the stacks of MiniDV tapes piling up.

Part of the Reach Fellowship includes meetings with advisors from different facets of the film business and getting their perspectives. One evening, after I had spent a day at the school, still unsure of who my main characters were, all of the fellows met with Cinematographer Michael Simmonds at the Cinereach offices. One of his main points of advice was to emphasize the importance of specificity, being economical with our choice of shots when covering a scene. He explained how simple, specific shots expressing simple ideas are the best building blocks for communicating larger, very complex ideas. (I’m butchering this, but he used the example of communicating a story about a baker’s wife cheating on her husband. To convey it, all you need is 1) shot of bed rocking 2) shot of waiting butcher 3) shot of wife, meeting husband, disheveled clothes.)

Michael Simmonds advises the RFF Fellows on Cinematography

Michael Simmonds advises the RFF Fellows on Cinematography

During our conversation with Mike, I began thinking about what types of situations would allow me to collect the simple building blocks of my story. What was the most basic and most interesting thing I could capture that would communicate a compelling, larger idea – one that reflected why I was drawn to this subject to begin with. It then struck me that the purest and most essential moments I could capture would be those of daily learning and social interaction between the kids during their first introduction to the school environment.

For the autism populations in Brooklyn and the Bronx who are so scattered and sometimes isolated by stigma or because they are undiagnosed, this classroom serves as a rare chance to interact with peers. This is one of the most essential things they gain from being at the schools, and is also a human and relatable need audiences will immediately identify with.

This guided me towards my first formal attempt at a defining statement: These kids deserve the same chance at being in a classroom as everyone else. Scenes that show that can be the building blocks of my film. The majority of my footage for the doc should come from material captured within the classroom and show how the rare, early intervention services Michelle and Fred’s unique schools provide are life changing for these students.

Now days away from starting principal photography, I feel armed with my defining statement. The process of struggling to define it is extremely helpful in establishing a structure and distinguishing the excellent scenes from the great. The statement reminds me what is at the core of this story, keeping me specific about what scenes we shoot, but at the same time open to surprises. Coming up soon, our first test shoot. My DP, Ivaylo Getov, and my sound mixer, Shawn Axman, will do a two-day trial shoot in the classroom to test our setups, then my editor Andrew Siwoff begins cutting. In our first sequence, we will document the arrival of a new student and the class’ reaction.

2010 RFF Fellow Anthony Morrison (mentored by Marilyn Agrelo) studied film at NYU. In 2006 he co-directed Body Soldiers, a documentary about the role of protest music in fighting HIV in South Africa, winner of a production grant from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Recently, he worked as a researcher for This Is Not A Robbery, by Andrea Lauren Productions, which premiered at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. In his RFF Film, Bye, a class of two-year-olds  faces opportunities and challenges at a school for previously undocumented autistic kids.


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