Immune Media’s Questions for Brian Padian
1.You have an MFA in Screen-writing from AFI. Did you start out as a screenwriter or as a filmmaker?
I always wanted to be a filmmaker but I started as a screenwriter. I thought that screenwriting would lead me to the filmmaking if you follow that. My plan was to move to Los Angeles and – much like John Sayles – get hired by studios to do script-doctoring on big-budget studio films and then use the money to make my own tiny independent films. In retrospect that plan makes me laugh as it has an extremely high degree of difficulty, as in nearly impossible. I was blinded by my own ambition and arrogance and assumed that once I merely arrived in LA things would fall into place. Instead, I went to film school and spent a long time learning how to write scripts and then encountered difficulty at the recognition and selling part. To pay the rent I had a series of day jobs in and around the industry (as it’s called there) so I got to see the mechanics of the business from several vantage points. The film industry is a tricky thing to succeed in; the three main ingredients are talent, luck, and contacts. However you don’t necessarily need all three, which is either encouraging or depressing depending on your viewpoint. In one sense the years of writing and striving was essential to help me along the path to finally directing my own things. In another sense it was a long hard slog.
2. Your films are centered on the dialogue of your stories. Who were your main influences as a young, aspiring filmmaker?
When I was younger Woody Allen was a constant source of inspiration. To me there was Woody and then there was everyone else. I saw his movies over and over. Annie Hall, Crimes & Misdemeanors, Hannah and her Sisters, Manhattan, Interiors, Stardust Memories, the list continues. I don’t hold him in the same esteem necessarily any longer – some of his current work feels a little like treading water to me – but he was unquestionably formative for me, showing how dialogue can drive a narrative, comedic timing, intelligence etc. Later on Billy Wilder movies would ring some of the same bells for me. I was also inspired by Stanley Kubrick but I wasn’t quite sure why. I think watching Kubrick I understood that I was seeing something unique and singular and visionary even if I wasn’t able to fully articulate what I was seeing. I actually still feel that way. Around the same time Blue Velvet by David Lynch came out, also a formative film for me, showing how a sort of familiar story and setting could be suffused with darkness, how a film could actually mean something else than what it was saying it meant, that there levels and sub-levels of understanding to what’s on-screen.
3. What were your film making goals when you were in High School?
I knew I wanted to do something with film but I wasn’t certain what exactly it would be. Film was the art form that spoke to my soul the strongest. Music, literature, and theater I all appreciated, and still do, but film was the thing that had the power to reach inside me, to squeeze my heart. I kept a journal of all the films I saw and would write little mini-reviews. These crack me up looking back because I’m not sure what my goal was in writing them but at a minimum I was attempting to analyze films beyond merely the act of watching, trying to comprehend things like directorial intent, visual style, rhythm etc.
4. What did you have to do, apart from receiving an MFA in Screen writing, to be an accomplished filmmaker?
1) Not give up. There were many times along the past 20 years where due to exhaustion or wounded pride or self-doubt or some combination therein I had the urge to throw in the towel. It took a long time to learn: It’s not going to happen just because you want it to. It takes time.
2) See as many movies as possible. When you’re not thinking about movies or reading about movies and movie production you should be watching everything you can get your hands on. Every movie and filmmaker is a doorway to another movie and filmmaker—it’s endless. And that’s a beautiful thing.
3) Don’t focus so hard on films and filmmaking that actually living life becomes obscured. Love, travel, art, family, heartbreak, et cetera are all vital to the formation of your mind and worldview and artistic makeup. Those things exist alongside your art not in lieu of it.
4) Don’t compare yourself to others. Every filmmaker’s path is different. I didn’t start directing in earnest until I was 36 years old.
5) When in doubt refer to #1 or go see a movie
5. Let’s talk a little bit about your workflow. You probably start a project out with the story. Where do you take the production process from there?
I generally begin with the stirrings of a story, whether a shot or a scene or a line of dialogue that’s floating around in my head. I’ll let it kind of kick around or marinate until it starts to form. Once that happens I’ll start writing it as a script. The script -writing is a discovery phase in that it will change and refine the original idea or sometimes prove that the idea isn’t good. From there it’s mostly rewriting, nailing down the characters and dialogue. Once I think I’m there with the script and that it’s actually a movie worth pursuing I’ll storyboard out the whole thing and meet with the DP (i.e. Director of Photography) to discuss our approach visually. I’ll audition actors, find locations and formalize a shooting schedule. The final step of this process is the actual shooting/production.
6. Explain the process of how your latest film, I’m Your Man, was made.
After I made ‘good food’ I was thinking about what my next project would be. My wife sometimes writes fiction and she had a piece in progress she let me read. Even though it wasn’t done it felt like I could make a complete short film from it. It felt cinematic – this poor couple trapped in a tiny space with an unkind doctor – I asked her if I could run with it and she said sure. I wrote a series of drafts to hammer out the beats of the story and then, once I had a finished script, I set out to find a DP, the cast, and the locations. The hardest part was actually getting the interior location for the hospital. Privacy issues make hospitals reluctant. I found a place I really liked but cost was an issue. Finally I was able to negotiate them to a fair price provided I added them to my production company’s insurance for the day of the shoot. Once I did that they said okay and I was able to shoot there. The whole film was shot on consecutive Saturdays. We shot the interior hospital stuff (i.e., the hallway, Dennis, the exam room) the first Saturday and exterior hospital stuff, the elevators, the driving scenes, the home stuff the following Saturday. The interior hospital and the exterior hospital and the running shot in the hospital parking garage were all at 3 different hospitals! It just worked out that way. Most of the budget went to paying for the interior hospital location. The cast worked on ‘deferred salary’, which is a fancy way of saying ‘free’. If the movie ever makes any money they’ll get some.
7. What are some tips you would have for young, broke filmmakers? I’m thinking of my students here. What are a few quick ways to give films (or videos) a professional touch?
Given the common nature of accessible high-quality video and editing systems you can have your film or video look professional quite easily. But that’s not the same as being good. At its core a piece has to have some authenticity or humanity, it needs a quality that makes it memorable for the viewer, which for lack of a better term can be boiled down to: identification. This is not something that anyone can purchase obviously and really, whole books are written about this that can speak to it more in depth than I can, but a film should be relatable on some level to a viewer, even a science-fiction or musical, has to have some entry-point for the viewer to understand they’re seeing themselves. (Note: unless the intent of the film is to alienate the audience)
If budget is a concern (and frankly when is it not?), one way to elevate the narrative is to spend a chunk of money to get a great location. In the case of “I’m your man” I initially considered getting a generic hallway and a blank room and ‘cheating’ a hospital environment with a well-placed prop or two. In retrospect this sounds like a very bad idea and I’m glad I didn’t go that route. The money was well spent because the location gives the world of the film a veracity it wouldn’t have had otherwise.
8.Let’s talk technical, equipment. What do you shoot with? Do you own or rent?
I borrowed a friend’s consumer-grade camera for a music video I made (Turkish Wine). For “good food” and “I’m your man” I found a DP’s through Craigslist. Each had his own equipment that he rented to me for the production with him operating the camera.
9. What sort of a production crew do you have while you are on a shoot?
To date it’s been bare-bones minimum. This is partially due to budget. On “I’m your man” it was myself, the DP, an assistant camera operator, and my wife who did various jobs… from picking up lunch to holding the boom pole for the sound. On “my beer with bill” it was the same set-up. If I had more money I would hire a professional sound tech, hair and makeup, and be able to rent some fancy-pants camera equipment.
10. What is your workflow as far as postproduction goes? What system or software application do you operate on?
I don’t actually edit my own stuff. I love the act of editing but I’ve found that when I review my own footage I’m not able to look objectively at it, I’ll only see my shortcomings or things I missed on set and get wrapped up in that instead of the narrative of the movie. My friend Evonne is a Los Angeles-based editor and has cut everything I’ve done to date. After the shoot wraps I copy the footage onto a hard drive and FedEx it to her. She cuts on Avid usually (though for the next one ‘my beer with bill’ she’ll most likely be using Final Cut Pro). When she has a scene cut together or a set of scenes she’ll upload them to me using YouSendIt. I’ll review them and then email her my notes and she’ll recut and/or adjust according to those notes. We go back and forth like that until the movie is done. It’s not ideal obviously – she and I are in different places, she has a day job, I have a day job – and it can take awhile but she is a fantastic editor and able to bring things to each film that I couldn’t have done alone. So it’s worth it.
11. What will your Next project be?
I wrapped production on ‘My Beer with Bill’ last month, a short paying homage to ‘My Dinner with Andre’ featuring the same husband and wife characters (and actors) from “I’m Your Man”. That’s currently in post-production. Later this year I’m shooting a film noir about a man who wakes up in the woods with no idea who he is. That will be shot on black-and-white film stock (as opposed to the high-def video I’ve been using lately) and partially funded by a grant from the Regional Arts Culture Council (RACC). After that is a feature-film that I’ve been writing intermittently for seven years. Eager to see that one to completion. I’ve been patient.