It’s been a rather eventful few days for ALGORITHM. As you might surmise from the previous post, the VO plays a part. But, I skipped ahead. So, I’ll back up a bit.
I was planning on recording the VO a bunch of times to get it right. I was using Apocalypse Now as a model, where Coppola constantly made changes to the VO until he got it just right. APOCALYPSE NOW is one of the two best VO’s I’ve ever heard, the 2nd being MEMENTO. Of course MEMENTO’s structure is so unique that there’s little point in using it for a model.
Chris Panzera lives in Los Angeles, as a wise actor should. He was going to drive down to Costa Mesa, where I live, and we were going to record the first version of the VO in my studio. I knew the VO wasn’t where I wanted it to be, but like I mentioned in the previous paragraph, I was cool with doing multiple versions, as was Chris.
But, the fact is, it’s almost a 2 hour drive, each way, from my Chris’s home to mine and I thought it kind of rude to ask him to make that drive a bunch of times. He’d changed his schedule to do the recording, so I was going ahead with my original plan.
Then fate stepped in. My neighbor decided he wanted to rebuild his staircase last week, which means construction, which mean construction noise, which means that even if I did get takes I like, I’d have to spend days in Logic (a program that lets you edit audio in great detail. In the industry, this is known as a Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW).
I called Chris and let him know that, rather than rudely waste his time, I’d just record a temporary VO track, using myself, and then fine-tune it so that when he finally does come down, we’ll be much closer to where I know the VO should be.
* * *
I spent Wednesday, October 23 recording and editing in the Temp VO. When I listened to it felt wrong. I knew it wouldn’t work. I thought that the movie was a masterpiece and I kept comparing it to putting lacquer on the Mona Lisa (because most VOs are bad). It wasn’t a good night. The following day, I screened ALGORITHM for one of the producers, with the VO track disabled (that means it won’t be heard when the movie is transcoded for DVD), letting him know there probably wouldn’t be one, a rather large mistake on my part, but serendipitous, as we shall soon see.
It takes a certain kind of person to be willing to risk everything, or what seems like everything in the hopes that the risk will pay off. There is a multifaceted conversation in there that I’ve been having with friends over the past few months, but suffice to say, it’s scary, and can be very expensive if the risk doesn’t pay off.
* * *
Making ALGORITHM is a risk for a lot of reasons.
1) Everyone and their niece is making movies now. That means it’s really hard to rise above the rest and get noticed, regardless of how good the project may be. This is usually solved with advertising, but that requires a budget and, as of this moment, ALGORITHM has no money.
2) ALGORITHM was a 143 page script. It’s since been whittled down to 119, but that’s still massive! It’s got a huge cast, nearly 30 people, not counting extras. It takes place in a major city that I don’t live and in which I didn’t have any filmmaking connections. Again, all of those problems go away with money. But, when ALGORITHM started, it had no money.
3) We needed to raise $30k to deal with all the Production/Legal/Distribution costs. We raised just under $9k. We were severely underfunded. This problem hasn’t gone away. But, things keep working out in spite of our lack of money (I’ll probably get into that in another post).
4) There is a belief in Hollywood, a virus that has spread to the rest of the world, that for a movie to be successful, it must have famous people in it. ALGORITHM doesn’t have any famous people in it. It’s not a big-budget science-fiction/fantasy/speculative-fiction movie. Also, there are no naked women in ALGORITHM, a factor that can often help sell a movie (see Horror or the recent Cannes winner, Blue is the Warmest Color as examples of this (that's not intended to be a statement of quality, but of logistics)).
The real fact is, people are attracted to good storytelling. In the absence of good storytelling, people will accept original storytelling. Napoleon Dynamite fits in there somewhere, as does The Blair Witch Project. I’ll let you decide where.
Everyone involved with ALGORITHM believes that it is both a good story and an original story. On top of that, it was very well executed, for which I must thank everyone involved. But, I’ve done that in other posts as well.
The fact is, even though ALGORITHM is amazing, it’s got a lot stacked against it. We’re not expecting to get a distribution deal with Warner Brothers, Fox, Sony, Paramount, or Dreamworks. They simply don’t deal directly with movies with this low budget, without famous people. However, they do have subsidiaries that do: Focus Features, for example. Even Focus Features models distribution based on famous people. It’s called the Star System. Read into that what you will. There’s even metrics letting studios know what a Star is worth today, yesterday, and probably tomorrow, for each of the regions of the world. It’s that detailed.
* * *
All of that to say, the screening with Producer #3 Thursday went poorly. He suggested we only try distributing ALGORITHM ourselves. That’s something we may still do, but it’s not something I really need a producer’s help with. P3 has dreams of working with a major studio. I don’t blame him for this. It’s a lofty and very difficult goal. He can’t make any mistakes in his career path. If he puts his name behind ALGORITHM and it doesn’t land, that could kill his life’s dream. It’s a big risk. He wasn’t willing to make it. So, for 2 days I didn’t have Producer #3.
That was a hard day.
I had just spoken with my friend Miles Maker, a fellow producer, and he gave me some good advice (this is a paraphrase, but I’ll put it in quotes for simplicity), “As you do screenings, you’re going to get a lot of comments. Listen to them with a grain of salt. Some will be good. Some bad. It’s up to you to know the difference.”
P3’s rejection hurt. It made me lose a little faith in ALGORITHM’s potential. And, I was exhausted, which made me more vulnerable to P3’s comments.
Often, when I’m emotionally spent, I’ll take a bath, let the silence and semi-sensory-depravation take me to a meditative state, until the heat of the bath totally saps my energy, then I’ll sleep. During the bath that night, Miles’s words came back to me. P3’s words were his words, from his perspective. It’s not the same perspective I’m at with ALGORITHM. He’s coming at movies from a totally different world-view, a valid one, but it just doesn’t match ALGORITHM, or independent movies. He’s a studio man. That’s his path. I should have seen his rejection coming, knowing what I know about him.
Just to be clear, P3 and I are still on good terms. When he worked on ALGORITHM, he did good work. I hope the best for him in his life-goal, and I’m fairly sure he’ll succeed. because he’s smart and driven. Our paths are just too different at this time.
P3 did have some good notes, though… things I realized during Thursday’s screening. ALGORITHM doesn’t condescend. It assumes that the hackers are talking to each other and that no one who doesn’t know what they’re talking about is listening. This means, unless you know A LOT about computers, or unless you’ve read the script, it’s not going to make much sense.
However bad I felt about the VO, the notes I got about it when ALGORITHM was in the script phase were still applicable. It’s required as an emotional, and occasionally technical bridge. So, it’s up to me to find a way to make it work.
* * *
Saturday, October 26th, Joseph Matarrese and Mandi Reno (Mandi was in ALGORITHM, and she’s Joseph’s producing partner, but otherwise, she wasn’t really a part of ALGORITHM) came to my studio for a screening.
And then there’s Mandi. She’s strong, like smart and capable and willing to take risks. I’d known this about her from conversations with her and with Joseph and Phillip Matarrese (the other producers on ALGORITHM). She’s willing to go out there to get what she wants. I knew she’d be perfect to fill the role of P3, the producer who is going to help ALGORITHM in distribution. But, would she say yes?
I explained to Joseph and Mandi P3’s departure and the effects that had on the project. Our conversation went all over, orbiting ALGORITHM and where it’s at. It eventually segued into my asking Mandi if she’d be interested in the P3 position.
I originally planned to offer her the position more subtly, by adding her name to the credits under the Producers title. But, the conversation preempted that.
Like a smart, tactical person, the exact person I want on my team, she said she’d have to wait until the movie was over before she gave me an answer. I knew then that I’d won her, because I knew ALGORITHM is really good, based on previous feedback I’d gotten.
The three of us watched it.
I make changes for every screening, using the notes I get each time to tweak the cut, so I don’t get a bunch of redundant notes, but rather cumulative notes. People can only see ALGORITHM for the first time, once. After that, they’ll come with more ideas in their heads. Getting fresh, first time notes is vital and it’s not something I’m going to waste. Getting notes from fellow filmmakers, all the more so.
For Saturday’s screening, I reenabled the VO. My earlier feelings that it didn’t work were totally in error. Not only did it work, it did exactly what I knew it would. It took the parts that were totally technologically unapproachable and created a bridge for the non-leet (sorry for the lame buzzword, but it fits). It’s not perfect and it still needs quite a bit of tweaking, but it’s way closer than I thought on the previous Wednesday.
Mandi and Joseph had notes, as I’d hoped they would. Their notes will make ALGORITHM better. After I got their notes, I again asked Mandi if she’s interested in the P3 position? It was fascinating to watch her mind shift from creative to pragmatic business. She is not someone to trifle with. She’s got ambition and drive. And, now she’s part of the team! She’s one of the missing pieces that ALGORITHM has needed since the beginning. She’ll help get our foot in the door of the Independent Film distributors.
* * *
Thanks to Saturday, we’ve got the beginnings of a distribution plan for ALGORITHM. It’s as lofty as script and the production. When it works, it’s gonna be amazing!
With the distribution plan came the schedule. That means, my editing must now be more specific, more deliberate and intentional. I need a solid rough cut by early December. That gives me just over a month.
* * *
It’s Monday, now. I’ve had the weekend to rest and think about what to do next in the edit bay. The todo list is quite long.
1) Cut out all the fat in ALGORITHM, eliminate any scenes, or even moments, that can go without there being an absence. And, there are a few of those.
2) Color correct all the video, so it looks consistent, and so that it’s as beautiful as it can be.
3) Fix the vocal tracks, so everyone’s lines can clearly be heard.
4) Add audio FX, so sounds that should be in a room are there.
5) Find the music that’s perfect for each scene. See if I can get the rights to the temporary tracks. If not, go with plan B, or C.
6) Create all the video FX shots, including screen replacements, smoke for the fire scene, removing boom microphones from the shots, dead pixels (one of the less enjoyable aspects of digital filmmaking, but still way cheaper than using film), clean up the grain from the night shots, replace windows so that backgrounds show what I want them to. This one should probably be broken up into more than one point. It’s kinda big and scary.
7) Make sure the VO is as close to Shakespeare as I can get it, then schedule Chris.
8) Mix the audio to both stereo and 5.1.
9) Make masters in all the aspect ratios and formats required for our distribution.
10) Along the way, hold screenings and get notes so that I know all the edits are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.
* * *
And, I’ve got just over a month to do all that. Of course, December’s screening doesn’t need to be the final product. It just needs to be a lot closer than where I am now.