One of the great things about SIFF is that they don’t simply screen movies; they actively promote the development and appreciation of great film in a number of ways. Their educational outreach includes hooking up students and filmmakers for the sort of classroom learning you just can’t get from a textbook both during the annual festival and throughout the year.
Two recent participants in this program were Skateland writer/director Anthony Burns and the film’s director of photography Peter Simonite who were in Seattle to talk about their film.
Skateland is a coming-of-age drama about 19 year old Ritchie Wheeler (Shiloh Fernandez), an aimless young man content with his small town Texas life as the manager of a local skating rink in the early 1980s. He spends his days at work or hanging out with his friends, including girlfriend Michelle (Ashley Greene). Life seems settled for Ritchie until the closing of the rink and a series of personal tragedies force him to have to think about his life in a serious way for the first time. Unlike a number of nostalgia-driven films, Skateland doesn’t just throw a few 80s pop hits on the soundtrack and dress its characters in “quirky” 80s fashions; Burns and his crew do an amazing job of genuinely recreating the look and feel of the times for a story that could have been set anywhere and anytime but manages to be respectful and honest of the time and place within it.
Burns and Simonite spoke to a class of film students from Pierce College eager to learn about the movie making process. Their practical advice included telling students who want to make money to avoid going into film, but they also shared stories from their careers and details about what it’s really like to make a movie.
Burns spoke of how he got involved with Skateland: “I was brought in by some friends of mine that I grew up with. I live in LA and they had a project they hired me to write and we wrote in Austin, Texas, because that’s where we’re from and it caught fire. By the way, 90 percent of this whole film thing is luck. It’s cool to be good, but it’s really about luck and timing, finding that perfect storm and that’s what happened with Skateland. We wrote it and then sent it out to casting agents in LA…and then we got Ashley Greene and all this great talent, which brought in more money.
“It was a summer time film on page but we were going to shoot in late summer and the fall in Shreveport. It gets really cold and so we adjusted the script about a month out in pre-production to make it where it ends around Christmastime, after Thanksgiving. This happens all the time. We were going to push and go shoot in the spring of the next year but we were going to lose crew, we were going to lose the rates we got on our cameras which was crazy because there was a pending SAG strike and the economy went to shit so no one was working, movies were falling apart, so we got this great crew at [a good rate] so it was a perfect storm. We roughed it out and then had about a year of editing. That’s how long editing usually takes, about six months to a year.”
An obviously key element of making a movie is the actual process of filming. Simonite on working with the director as the DP and what he wants from the director for the optimal working environment:
“The main thing is that the director cares about the way it looks. They have some idea of what they might want it to look like and whether that’s still photography or fine art or something that’s original or whatever it is…mainly that they care. And some directors don’t.
I just backed out of a project because after three weeks of prep in talking to the director I realized that she didn’t – the look of it was something that she didn’t care about. It was a comedy so she didn’t really care about contrast and color and at the end of the day I felt like it would just be undermining what I wanted to do.”
Getting a film from concept to completion can be tricky, no matter what one’s level of involvement can be. After a student asked Burns what else he’s written for the screen, he shared a “horror story”:
“I sold a script called ‘The Birthday Party’, it has Kelly Garner in it. She was in Lars and the Real Girl. I sold it and I really needed the money, I was living on my ex-girlfriend’s floor at the time and they’re like, ‘We’ll give you this X amount of dollars if you’ll sign away your rights.’ It was my favorite script at the time, this crazy thriller horror film about a guy who tells a story and you think he’s the good guy but he’s the bad guy. I sold it, they changed the name to Red Velvet and then rewrote the script.
“It’s horrible. With my name on still on it.
“So they sent me the Blu-Ray DVD when it was made because I never went to the opening screening and I threw it on the grill and lit it on fire.”
On satisfactorily completing a film: “The key is that we worked with a really great executive producer that believed in the film and the material. We told him what we needed and we didn’t get everything we wanted but he believed in us.” This, he says, isn’t common, at least not working with the major studios, because movie-making involves so many different people fighting for control of each project.
What makes independent film great is that it allows more freedom but, per Burns, “It’s very risky.”
In fact, he adds: “In this economy, film is risky across the board. If you’re trying to get jobs as director or writer, you’re going up against big time directors. It used to be that there were so many projects that you could get decent jobs and now on studio films it’s almost impossible. Independent film – you can get your film done the right way, but at the same time it’s a good chance that it will never be seen.”
Students also wondered about the educational pathways into movie making. What do you need to study to become a writer or director or camera operator, for example? Per both Burns and Simonite, a career in film really is all about luck and timing. Burns started writing in high school but because he wasn’t initially interested in film, he didn’t seriously start working on screenplays until after college. Simonite started working on films right after completing college but in retrospect wishes he’d taken up the Duplass Brothers’ offer for a job on a film they were working on as PAs in Austin. Going to school does have its advantages: “Your background doesn’t matter at all,” however, says Banks. “It’s what you believe in, your passion and your love for filmmaking.”
Modern technology has done a great deal to democratize movie making. It used to be that to learn about movie making you would go to one of a few select schools or work your way up from the bottom at the studios, but “you can shoot movies for nothing. You can be educated and watch films on your computer. You can take classes everywhere.” Adds Simonite: “You can get yourself a [Canon] 5D [camera] and Final Cut and distribute it online.”
Once a script’s been written and a film’s in the can, so to speak, there’s still more to be done with it. The two spoke of the post-production process and the various roles the director and crew play in completing a movie. The cinematographer’s most important job is to capture all of the scenes and angles that the director and editor will need to put the film together. The editor can be the true hero of any film, poring over footage to construct the story that the director wants to tell. Another key element of film production is the colorization. Skateland was sent to DeLuxe for color work. There the negative was scanned for color processing very dependent on the quality of the original film, another reason for the director to clearly communicate his vision of the film’s visual feel to the camera crew. In tribute to the time the movie is set, Skateland appears on screen in bright, vivid hues.
Simonite talked about the difference between shooting on 35 mm film and shooting digital and why this movie was shot on film: “It’s kind of counter-intuitive, but when you’re shooting on film it’s actually a little bit easier because you have more range. “ Digital formats have improved since their initial introduction, he says, and continue to advance, but film still allows for greater contrast and more detail even when the film will later be edited digitally.
Adds Burns: “It was an early 80s film so we felt like it was wrong to shoot it digitally.”
Post is perhaps the most complex part of movie making, but pre-production has its own challenges. For example, says Burns, “Location scouting, by the way, is the worst thing ever.”
Filming isn’t exactly simple either. There are a number of negotiations that have to be made every day, including working with a crew who have very specific ideas about their roles and responsibilities. Crew members are very often specialists whose primary interest is their own particular role. The same can be said of the cast. The director has to manage any disagreements or difficulties that arise on set between these various groups, including at least one fight between crew members which required Burns to break it up by physically by literally inserting himself between two combatants.
Talking about getting to the point where one will be making these sort of decisions, Burns reiterates that a vital component of being able to make a film is being in the right place at the right time. Getting to know people who are in the business already and can help you find your way in is important as is the simple, but crucial, fact of being in a place where films are being made. Burns tells the story of how Simonite just happened to be in LA on one particular day when someone he knew from shooting another movie called him up and asked him to come do some work on a new film, giving him a credit on a major film simply because he happened to be available on that one particular day.
This luck played a role in Skateland‘s creation, but it was more than luck that turned it into a great film. Burns and his entire cast and crew have managed to put together an engrossing, entertaining story that looks and plays well.
Skateland screens next at SIFF on June 6 at 8:00 pm at Kirkl