Independent Filmmaker's Guide
September 1, 2020
Still Here: Prioritizing Performance
Passion, performance, and planning. Creating an independent feature takes all of them. From knowing how to get from your actors both planned and improvised performances, to knowing how to light a room and prepare camera rigs, there is always a need for a plethora of knowledge, experience, gear, and even budget. But as we hear from both the cinematographer and director of the new indie feature, Still Here, in the end films are made with people, not equipment.
Vlad Feier: If you are interested in evolving and trying to do your best and each movie to be better than your previous, all the time, it will be a first. Like the next movie, I don’t want to be the same. I want to do it way better. So of course, the challenges will be different. And so on, so on, so on.
Ana Paula Rivera: Number one, you have to believe in your product. You have to believe in your movie and you have to know it so much that you have to convince them that you’re the right person.
Vlad Feier: I will always say, “Movies are made by people, not by equipment”.
Vlad Feier: In the end, it’s about a father who’s not giving up.
Steven Pierce: A father who’s not giving up. Ana Paula, whenever you got the script first and he first told you about the story, how were you approaching it visually? Visually, what’s the vocabulary for you?
Ana Paula Rivera: For me, initially, it was incredibly important to have a camera that would completely become invisible. So you could really get into the world and then follow the characters because it’s a movie that you have to follow cues and go all around the city. So we decided to go with steady so we can have emotion that would completely go with the characters in a way that you wouldn’t feel it, but yet it would take you on the ride.
Steven Pierce: So you focus steadicam as like your primary rigging?
Ana Paula Rivera: Yes. Most of it, let’s say, 70%. We did steadicam and handheld.
Steven Pierce: That’s interesting. So how are you planning coverage in a scene? Because many times steadicam can be a little deceptive. Like you want to get in, you always want to have that floating shot. But then whenever you’re going to do your coverage or your overs, are you planning it kind of conventionally, where that’s going? How are you planning those shots up?
Ana Paula Rivera: What we did is we rigged the whole lighting in order for the characters to have all the space available. So you would not have anything on sticks on the floor. Everything was rigged above them. So they also would not see it, but give a lot of freedom to the actors. And also to the camera, because whenever you would turn around, you would have that freedom.
Ana Paula Rivera: But especially, Vlad wanted to allow the characters to be able to improvise, to get into the character and just become it. Which means you have to let up and you have to just follow them. So we wanted to have that space to be able to just react to what the characters would do. And that helped us a lot with covering it. And we had a trick that you would keep the arm and you would keep it on a tripod with wheels. So you still keep that essence, that visual movement, but you have more freedom and it makes your work flow a little bit faster.
Vlad Feier: Even sometimes in interiors, I would not choose to have them on sticks, but actually really operate the steady. And because I would let the actors improvise. And the improvisation doesn’t come just to actors sitting face to face and talking. They will stand up. So we’ll have people from the art department moving the table. The steady would come and put the table back. So if we turn around, because at a certain point when improvisation will come, all the marks will disappear. So had an amazing first day scene. And the focus puller was hitting the spots very well with basically no rehearsals on those movements. And we’re already, being in New York, I had probably two or three scenes that I wanted to have one take and we were prepared for it. And they were pretty long takes.
Vlad Feier: So I believe one of them, the one with Joanie and Zazie, in the end, it did not work because of the sound issues. So I was all the time, we are ready to use it, to cut it out and to cover it differently.
Steven Pierce: Let’s talk about the screenplay, first of all. A lot of improv, a lot of development with the characters and the actors. It sounds like it was happening on set and in the scene. How as a writer, were you approaching that? Were you writing the beats for them or were you writing scenes and then tearing them apart and rebuilding them as the actors saw it fit?
Vlad Feier: So actually the script that we went into production change, I was constantly working on the script. The way I worked with the actors who did not have any table reads. I don’t want to make it too robotic. I wanted for the actors to actually feel the character and for me to feed them as much information about the character as possible, instead of learning by heart some lines, just to feed our egos as writers that, “Oh yeah, they said our lines there”. And I allow actors to come with opinions like, “Hey, what if we approach this line in this way and not this way?” So whatever it will have made them feel more comfortable in the shoes of their characters would make us happy. And there are some scenes, for instance, when a Christian gets for the first time inside of the apartment of the Watson Family. Probably half of that scene, it’s improvisation. Maurice just finished the enter lines and he was so much into their character, I did not want to cut. So I think we rolled for like 10, 15 minutes after that.
Steven Pierce: Ana Paula, how are you also responding to improv with your work? I guess you weren’t operating the steady cam, were you? You had another operator?
Ana Paula Rivera: Yes.
Steven Pierce: So basically you were setting the look of a room in the look of the direction you’re going to be looking more or less and then the camera plays in that plane most of the time if they’re going to improv like that?
Ana Paula Rivera: The thing is we leak for, let’s call it, like 280 degrees. So whatever happens, will be good. And yeah, allow them to do whatever they are good at doing. And following them, getting close with the action, following the action with a camera. And again, if you’re in steadicam, you still do have that freedom.
Vlad Feier: It was literally, I would describe it as a very respectful way from the actors, for the camera operator and for the DP and the key grip. Everybody tried to do their best. Like the toll apartment, I don’t know when you see like a pipe that you think it’s a pipe in the corner being a New York apartment. You think it’s a pipe. It’s not a pipe. It’s builds from the arts in order to hide a stick that in the end opinion, you have almost 360 lightning.
Vlad Feier: So yeah, it was very, very interesting. And allowing people to … Whenever probably you have all the budget in the world, you can do whatever you want. But whenever you are limited in a certain budget time, then you have to improvise. And I think that’s the moment when beautiful things are coming up.
Steven Pierce: So how, when you’re in the middle of an improv scene like that, if you know you want to use something? So you see something you want. Are you trying to recreate that then so you can get the coverage on it?
Vlad Feier: No. As well at the point, if they would go off of the rail, I would just give them a direction for them to go back. And the moment when I knew that I have everything that I need in the editing room from the actual screen, then I would feel very comfortable. So it would be basically a bonus. It would be an extra.
Steven Pierce: So on Ana Paula, whenever you see a scene unfold that has like a little bit of an improv thing into it and so you’re shooting it on a wide, now do you go in to try and cover that moment in ?overs then how does it change your production plan as far as what your coverage is going to be?
Ana Paula Rivera: It all depends. Obviously even the improv, if Vlad’s happy with it and it’s fit to go. And it’s worth it going and getting the courage, then you go in and also get it. But we did get it in different ways. Not in a conventional way. It’s not irregular overs or like that. It’s getting tighter, getting details. Because as Vlad mentioned, he already has from this script, all of what he needs. And if he’s going to use that, then he will use it to get texture for the movie, for the film.
Vlad Feier: I was pretty tidy in the improvisation. Yeah. I was not like, “Oh, let’s cover it wide and make sure”. And you don’t have to play the safe card because one thing about improvisation, you won’t be able to get it again. So, that raw acting, you have to be present and you have to catch it on the spot. You cannot ask, tell him like, “Hey, can you do that again?” So I’m not afraid of long takes. I believe that if a camera stays on the face of an actor and that actor delivers you gold, nobody cares that, “Oh, we are on this actor for already 45 minutes”. All the time I talk about … And I give this example, I’m thinking about Scent of a Woman. We felt Pacino, whenever he meets O’Donnell in the room, the camera stays so long. But Al Pacino, the acting, it’s brilliant. So you don’t actually care what’s happening behind. That’s a plus.
Steven Pierce: So if you’re rigged on a steady cam, and then you’re taking the arm off the rail, you’re taking the sled and the arm and fixing that to a tripod, right? I’m understanding that correctly. It was kind of how you were moving?
Ana Paula Rivera: Yeah.
Steven Pierce: So how are you approaching lenses? Are you swapping lenses with that? Or were you able to maintain balance while you’re swapping lenses if you’re doing that?
Ana Paula Rivera: No. If you don’t swap lenses, you do need to rebalance. But it would be actually that whenever we would have … Honestly, we shot most of the film on 50 and 35. So it would be simple to at that exchange, because obviously we would get our tight shots in different lens. But the main feeling was 50 and 35, which as Vlad says, he’s not a big fan of wide. And in a 50 or a 35, I know specifically my favorite lens is 35. I think it’s just perfect. It gives you the emotion of the character. But at the same time, you still have your information on the back and you have the world. And that was what we were going for. We are able to follow them to see them to not have them either tight or on a wide, if not to feel the presence as if we were in human light. If you are in human light, you see the I equals like a 50. So then that exchange in the workflow would be easier because we hold onto those lenses, like our main buddies for the film. And if you need to rebalance a camera, you have the time. It’s not a big deal. And you’re lighting, your doing so many other things also. So it won’t affect that much. What helps a lot is the fact that the tripod has wheels and it allows the steadicam operator to either rest or the cameras getting in different places while it gets crowded. Also, remember if you’re shooting on location. And in New York, the spaces are not as big.
Steven Pierce: Yeah. I’ve had so many conversations on set with cinematographers that are exactly like you, that I feel like I’m always like, “Yeah. All right. So we’ll go to the close up, maybe the 85 or the 70.” And they’re like, “No, no, no, no. Let’s do the 35.” It’s just like, cinematographers always love the 35 and the 40 and the 24.
Ana Paula Rivera: It’s beautiful. I think there’s a beauty to a long lens, that it would hold you a lot of emotion and it’ll give you that specific thing that you want to see. But if you use a wider lens on a closeup, you bring so much more to the frame, but it always depends what you’re trying to accomplish in each set. Sometimes you just want the 85 or an extreme closeup and have everything else go back out of focus, or sometimes you want that information. And for also, what’s important to bring the information from the back. As New York City also plays a role itself in the film. So we also wanted to keep that background always happening in order to accentuate how the city is incredibly busy. And you can be surrounded by people, but in moments, when you’re going through a tough challenge, you’re still alone. So you can also separate the front and the back of the film.
Steven Pierce: Yeah. One of my favorite things about filmmaking is you can do the exact same shot on the same person with the same emotion and change the lens. And it’s emotion versus perspective. Like if you’re tighter, it’s usually more emotional. I don’t know, that the compression somehow makes the world feel more visceral. But the wider adds more of a perspective and a vision and more of what you’re influencing on the scene.
Steven Pierce: Vlad, how was this experience for you in relation to your other commercial music video work and short films?
Vlad Feier: The first thing I would say, it’s holding the continuity. We jumped in a music video after the movie and it was like, “Oh, wow. It’s so easy, what’s happening here.” Now, it’s totally different from writing the script to going on set and holding on to, I don’t know how much, 27 days or something like that. The whole preparation is different. The whole approach is different. You are not running a sprint. It’s a marathon. For us, it was a pretty long marathon. We as well, we are some of the producers from the movie bringing the financing. Then after the movie is done, trying to find distribution. So overall, you’re not just shooting. But the involvement in the movie, it’s a totally different level. Most likely as a short, you’ll finish the short. You send it to some festivals. You show it to your family. And that’s it. If you are interested in evolving and, and trying to do your best and each movie to be better than your previous, I mean, all the time, it will be a first. The next movie, I don’t want to be the same. I want to do it way better. So of course the challenges will be different and so on. So on. So on. My whole career, I’m trying to learn from this process, going to the next process, do it. And then apply it and so on. So all the time, it’s not like, “Oh, I did a feature”. Right now, all the features will be like a piece of cake. I know how to-.
Steven Pierce: Oh, no. I think every feature is its own monster every time. What was your strategy, to the degree you’re comfortable sharing to finding the investment and maintain getting the film up off the ground from script format to a place where you can produce it?
Vlad Feier: I mean, we tried to find people, that first of all will be supportive. It’s very important. And I don’t know, for all filmmakers that are looking and they try to build their first feature and look for investment. There are many avenues you can get financing, like from tax incentives. There are lot of grants. We have senior reach in the United States. But for instance, if you shoot in Europe, each country has grants from their government. And then it’s European Union. So you can build the budget in a way that makes you comfortable. You have to get to a certain budget that you know you will achieve your movie. But at the same time, don’t overspend. If you know that that idea, you will waste money, don’t just raise money to brag that you made a $5 million budget movie. I think there needs to be a balance. And I don’t know, probably the best place to start looking for money, it’s with the family. Get some there. Attach it to the screen, then go to somebody else, build a little bit more. Maybe you can get an actor to sign and do a touch. I don’t know. Maybe lots of people that do presales. I think each movie is different and depends who you find. We’ve been lucky enough to have very supportive financiers behind us. They support our decisions and the path that we choose to take. So I think at the end for us, it was very rewarding. Again, it’s very interesting. I’ve heard people that they made movies with $20,000.00 That they look like one million and I’ve heard people that they made three million budget movies that they look like $100,000.00.
Ana Paula Rivera: I believe it’s very important to really have your feet on the ground and have a full clarity of what it is, what you want to do.
Vlad Feier: Exactly.
Ana Paula Rivera: Because if you know your script and you know what you want, or what do you want to accomplish, with no extras, to really be able to see in front of you the road clear and capitalize it from that. Don’t put extra things of that … At the end, it’s honestly just an illusion that down the road is going to fall and it’s going to hurt you and it’s going to hurt the production and it’s going to hurt the path. So even the beginning, you make sure you’re grounded and your goal is reachable and you’re connecting your points in a very effective manner. I believe it will make it simpler on the production side.
Ana Paula Rivera: And number one, you have to believe in your product. You have to believe in your movie and you have to know it so much that you have to convince them that you’re the right person to be able to receive those funds and go further and do that film. After that, keep on loving it and keep on loving it, because it gets very hard. Throughout the film, you will have so many challenges, so many moments that you’re going to wish to just by magic, solve things. And that doesn’t happen. And that resilience is pushed through the fuel of love that you at the beginning of your film put into.
Ana Paula Rivera: That persistence, that passion, that love for the craft and for your story is literally what keeps you going. And if you hold on to that, everything aligns. Honestly, you just need to keep going and be able to dodge whatever you have to dodge and focus on what you have to do in order to be able to accomplish it.
Ana Paula Rivera: We’re very lucky with the fact that everyone knew what they had to do. There was an inner communication between everyone. And I think that is what productions that are smaller should focus on, on being able to build a team. Because if the team is happy, the team understands each other, if it’s actually a team, then you have 50% of the job done because you don’t have to micromanage every single element.
Vlad Feier: I will always say, “Movies are made by people, not by equipment”. As somebody with an amazing team and maybe with a DSLR will achieve a way better movie than somebody … I don’t know what. Maury, large formats, new, whatever you want to try and dollies and how you call them? Cranes and so on. We’ll never bring that. It’s beautiful. You will make visually something astonishing. But in the end, movies are about performance.
Steven Pierce: This is a great opportunity to talk about resources. Do you remember what your general crew, not including cast, your general crew was? Like how many grip and electrics? How many are in our department? Like that sort of thing?
Vlad Feier: I mean, we had probably like, let’s say grip and electric, I would say, between 15 to 20. Yeah. 15 to 20. It depends on the day. Then our department, same. We had sometimes five. Sometimes whenever they had to build, maybe we will not even be there while we were shooting something that would prepare another location. Probably a total of eight. Overall, we’ve been probably like 100. The set crew, a little bit less than 100. Again, it was very nice. Again, we received understanding and support from a lot of people. So whenever, for instance, we were shooting in the art department, the art department was setting the location for the next day. And as Anna said, “This idea of being able to light up 360 will allow us at each scene, knowing already what’s the scheme”. You just have to make adjustments. So, that G&E crew will be split into. So, I mean, you have it full. You pre light. And then half of it, they will go to the next location where you shoot the next day. And you would make sure the next day, whenever you get on set, you don’t lose time with lightning. And you just jump into it.
Steven Pierce: That’s a pretty good amount of crew. That’s really solid crew size. How many days are you all shooting in principle production?
Vlad Feier: We had 25 days and we did, I don’t know, two or three days of additional shooting, right?
Ana Paula Rivera: Three. Three.
Steven Pierce: Three days of additional shooting. So what was your general lighting package like? Talking about not having too much stuff, was what you guys were just talking. Avoid your budget to make sure you have what you need. If you’re setting up two locations, how are you approaching that for what your package was going to be?
Ana Paula Rivera: From the beginning, we knew that we needed to have that workflow. So the first day, Dee had the scheduling laid out. We would plan for the camera equipment and for the lighting equipment to be ready for that. So, but still keeping in mind that we could not afford many extras or many standing by units because- . So it was honestly very simple. It was a very beautiful workflow. The gaffer and the key grip were honestly amazing.
Vlad Feier: Yeah, we had an amazing crew..
Steven Pierce: The shooting in New York too, is a very difficult thing. You guys had shot sequences on the subway. You had sequences on the street. Were you ever closing those down and permitting those? Or were you stealing them and trying to time it?
Vlad Feier: Now, we did both. For instance, everything that you see with police cars and like this, it was a closed street. Not permanent, intermediate, like 30 minutes. And then whenever we’ll reset, they will allow cars to pass. So, yeah. Again, huge support from the NYPD from the film-
Steven Pierce: Film office. Yeah.
Vlad Feier: … Film office. Yeah. Basically everything was permitted because in New York compared with LA is easier. If I put a camera in LA, it doesn’t matter if we are three people around the camera. You need somebody from the film LA office. Sometimes they want a police officer or fire department. And all these signs are permitted differently. While in New York you’ll go, I don’t know how much you owe. If it increased, but it was $300.00 overall.
Steven Pierce: For the whole production?
Vlad Feier: Right.
Steven Pierce: Whereas LA is like 700 per location if you’re in the main zone.
Vlad Feier: And of course, to those $300.00 you add, whenever you close the street, whenever you need extra units. But no, I’m telling you, we were so blessed from crew and cast to all the locations. From the people, from all the apartments that we shot. Like the police station, for instance, it’s not the police station. It’s a church. So the art department, they did a fabulous job transforming that church office in a police department. So what I would say, take exactly what you need. As we said, be as much as prepared as possible. Be able and willing to adapt, but put more money into, or more time and attention into what you want to get from your actors and what you can work with the crew.
Steven Pierce: What was it happening? And now that the film was made, all posts edited, all done. How does it find its home? Like as far as your distribution, what is your pathway?
Vlad Feier: First of all, a huge shout out to our post house from Germany, from Berlin, the Post Republic. They were extremely helpful. They worked with us for whatever needs we had. As for distribution, we basically represented the movie. We looked for the distributor or sales agents. We had some inquiries. But in the end, we liked Blue Fox. As well, we have an acquaintance and a filmmaker that had a movie with them and she told us that she was very happy with the experience. We agreed and some adjustments here and there. We made the plan that changed because everything happened in February around the Berlin Film Festival. And then right after the pandemic came. So, they made the best out of it with what cinemas we have open and then some virtual.
Steven Pierce: So you go to virtual cinema. And then is it following up domestically, internationally on TVOD platforms?
Vlad Feier: Well, we’ll start the other traditional and virtual on August 28th. And then after that, it goes VOD. Same in Germany, it goes theatrically. And then VOD. And then later in December, it will go on Starz.
Steven Pierce: That’s great. Well, congratulations on the success so far. And I can’t wait to tell people to go purchase and watch it on Amazon or in virtual cinema. It’d be even better. Right?
Vlad Feier: So there are states where traditional cinemas are open and they made sure that the movie goes there.
Ana Paula Rivera: But nothing like seeing the film on the big screen, speakers, just focusing, not be able to stop it to check your phone, like complete immersion in the story is what really allows you to feel the story, to connect with the story. So if you have a theater next to you, it’s going to be better.
Steven Pierce: Yeah. So where can people follow your guys’ work to see what you have coming up next?
Vlad Feier: In my case, it’s Instagram. Vlad Feier. V-L-A-D, F-E-I-E-R.
Ana Paula Rivera: Same, I think Instagram. And also I am DP, Ana Paula Rivera.
IFG is created by Framework Productions. This episode was directed by James Allerdyce, produced by Matt Mundy, edited by Audrey Rae McHale, and hosted by Steven Pierce. The music is by Glass Boy. Find his music on freemusicarchive.org