Friday, November 20, 2009

The League Interviews - Filmmaker Christopher Golon

The League recently had the opportunity to watch independent filmmaker Christopher Golon's feature film, KNOCK 'EM DEAD, KID. Knock 'Em Dead, Kid follows Bret, a young man hoping to make it as a filmmaker through the summer leading up to his departure for college. With his friends in tow, Bret faces hurdles from all directions - a new girl who disrupts his long-term relationship with his girlfriend, a friend's arrest for drug dealing, and assault charges - as he struggles to shed the skin of his small home town and make something of himself.

Shot on a shoestring budget, KNOCK 'EM DEAD, KID is a lesson in independent filmmaking. The League had a chance to ask writer/director Christopher Golon a bit about his film and his background.  

First, Chris, we wanted to thank you for taking some time to talk with The Screenwriters League about your feature film, Knock ‘Em Dead, Kid. To kick things off, why don't you tell us a bit about your background as a filmmaker - where you went to school, what got you interested in making movies, and where it all began for you.

It all began when I was a kid, I was 7 and my family and I had basic cable - one weekend we got a free weekend of ‘The Movie Channel.’ After that weekend, we got ‘The Movie Channel’ and my brother and I would spend hours watching whatever was on. We were both hooked, hooked on that channel. We watched everything we were allowed to (R rated movies were off limits) and sometimes we would sneak the R rated stuff. This really helped to get me into loving movies. But I thought that was that - I wanted to be a pro baseball player, who doesn’t, right?

I never really looked into making movies, not until about 8 months after graduating from high school. I had read about film schools so I looked into what schools were the best, but first I decided to enroll in a university closer to me, to knock out the general education credits, and then transfer. Thus began the long, strange road, which continues to this day.

So, my plan was to end up at USC. Being young and naive, my plan was good in theory but then I learned that I really couldn't afford, even with loans, to attend USC. The killer for me was that I was accepted to USC, not the film program, but the university itself and I just couldn't afford it.

After that, I needed a new plan of attack. I had done a lot of reading about filmmaking and trying to break in to Hollywood so I decided to try and write my way in, as everything I read mentioned that it was an easier route. So, I got my pen and my notebook and the writing began. Looking back now, my first few scripts are awful, just awful. But at the time, I though they were great, oscar worthy, like Ralphie in ‘A Christmas Story.’ But in retrospect, I didn’t understand how to write dialogue.

So, with more time came a better understanding, and in 2001, I finally had a screenplay good enough that it was optioned by a Producer in LA. This experience was a huge, huge learning experience. I learned how the whole Hollywood system really worked. And how scripts can be taken away from the writer, mismanaged, and how writing isn’t very fun. Over time, the deal fell through, and after that, I realized that I needed to try and make my own films. This was I was in control - but if only I could find a I continued on with my writing and between the years 2002-2004, I had the privilege of dealing with managers and entertainment attorneys and I generated some minor interest in one of my scripts but nothing ever came of it. Besides the scripts I had for sale, I had my pet project ‘Knock ‘Em Dead, Kid’ that I wanted to make but I never showed this to anyone, not even as a spec, I was too protective of it.

So where did the idea for Knock ‘Em Dead, Kid come from? Was this a long time in the making? Talk a bit about your writing process and how long it took you to achieve the final draft of the script. How do you get in-the-zone when you write?

The original idea for ‘Knock’ came from a mix of real life and reel life. I took elements of my life, my friends lives, and mixed it with cinema - the only problem was - I added scenes with guns and knives, scenes that couldn’t have been more false. I mean, I dealt with violence growing up, I went to a tough middle school, very tough, but I somehow avoided most of the trouble directly. So, I had this script which was about 110 pages and it felt more reel than real.

I read an article in which a filmmaker, I don’t remember his name, stated that younger filmmakers/writers should write what they know - not ‘hip-hop gangster scripts’ dealing with guns and situations they know nothing about. That started the wheels turning and I decided to overhaul the script.

The script was tweaked, rewritten, and changed A LOT over 12+ years. It had numerous titles, pretentious ones like ‘Once Upon a Summer in Connecticut,’ I guess that was my attempt at a Sergio Leone homage, and finally the story started to become more concrete.

Originally I sketched out the story, sat down, and wrote free hand on a notebook. But as time went on, it was time for the changes, so I used my PC and made the story more grounded in reality - no guns - and it took shape. The script that is closer to the finished film came from 2001 - and it dealt with me trying to prove a point to myself. My mystery script had been optioned and the producer was telling me things that didn’t make sense - and then getting mad at me after his suggestions were being rebuffed by someone else - and I sat down one Friday night and by Sunday night - less than 48 hours later - ‘KNOCK ‘EM DEAD, KID’ was born. Like I said, it was a mix of previous ideas and stories from the previous drafts, but this was me writing what I liked and how I liked.

From 2001-2007 I tweaked the script, slaved over some lines, I mean, there were some lines I couldn’t let go and had to have, no matter what, but I would say the movie itself was born in 2001.

Ok, now you have your script, you’ve been working on Knock ‘Em Dead for a while… where do you go from there? What were the next steps you took in getting to the production stage? I guess the first thing to answer here is, was this your first feature? If not, what did you learn from doing that, which helped you go forward with this one?

Good question, where do you go? I had attended the New York Film Academy in LA during the fall of 2007. This helped show me that I didn’t need a huge budget to pull off my idea - just ingenuity. I had made an experimental feature (that was a project that had been off and on for years and then put together and to say more would give away more of the ‘secret’ of that film, entitled ‘Visions of Violence’ and there’s more info for that on prior to film school and then made numerous shorts and a good thesis film at NYFA. All of this combined set me up to make ‘Knock.’

So, I sat down and had a look at the script, which was 212 pages, that’s way over 3 and 1/2 hours, and scale it down. I got it down to 165 and then 140 and then 80. The main location that I knew I could never secure, especially with NO budget, was an ice cream parlor where the leads worked. So, that was gone right away. I removed any expensive sets, consolidated some characters since the original script had 35+ speaking parts down to 20, and made the locations more ‘on the cheap.’ Next was where to shoot - in Connecticut? - where I’m from, or back in LA? I figured LA, since I like it, the talent pool is huge, and I had good luck at NYFA there.

Knowing the script was ready and tailored to a much lower budget, pretty much a zero-budget, and having the ‘where’ of where filming would take place - all I needed was a DP and my actors. And back to LA I went...

I had placed ads on craigslist and LA Casting seeking talent and a DP (Director of Photography aka cinematographer) and when I got there - the next day I had meetings/interviews/auditions all set up. I auditioned actors for 2 weeks and the DP I found the first day. All of the budget went to the DP and the tape needed as I shot on Digital Video with a Panasonic DVX.

Did you know your cast and crew? If not, where did you find them? How instrumental were they in developing the material, if at all? How collaborative was the process – and how long did you shoot for?

I cast one minor character with an actor I went to NYFA with (Nathan Yoder) - he would’ve had a bigger role but this was only due to age not ability. Everyone else came from craigslist and LA Casting as I needed people who looked 18-20.

Pretty much, the script was the blueprint and everyone stuck to it. There was improv, usually at the end of scenes or in scenes that were originally short but expanded. This helped enhance the scenes and the improv plus the script worked.

The shoot was to last 2 weeks but instead it lasted 3. Things come up, unforeseen circumstances occur, and nothing goes as planned - such is the life of an independent filmmaker - I’m sure anyone who’s made a film can relate to that statement.

Like many young filmmakers, you and certain Leaguers have or are working on producing their own material. I think that one of the biggest obstacles people in this boat face is funding. How did you go about raising funds for the film? What budget were you working with and did you have a lot of in-kind donations?

I didn’t raise funds - it was limited money that I had or was ‘donated’ by family. The total budget was $3000 and that included the DP, the tape, and where I was staying in LA.

You play a lot with flashbacks and jump cuts and other techniques that continually tie the past into the present in the film, while including concrete chapter headings detailing what day it is. Can you talk a bit about your decision to cut the film this way, weaving everything together while definitively illuminating the timeline?

Stating what day it is within the story was always a part of the script. That goes back to 2001, not sooner than that, but to that point. As for the jump cuts, I usually try to employ them into my editing to help the story move along. It makes it more cinematic.

The flashbacks - that’s a different story - that was a happy accident. What happened was this: I edited a rough cut of the film and realized that some scenes were to pedestrian and close to being boring. So, I started inserting other scenes, bits of scenes, and unused footage into those scenes which needed that something extra and that’s how the flashbacks became used. The flashbacks greatly enhanced the scene in which Bret comes clean to Veronica about cheating on her - without those scenes interspersed, the scene wouldn’t feel right.

I feel that by using those scenes in other scenes, it helps to show a character’s memory or the film’s memory, know what I mean? It keeps things fresh instead of stagnant. 

What was the worst thing about shooting? The best? Is there anything you learned from this production that you’d like to do differently in the future? Anything you wish you had done that you didn’t?

The worst thing about shooting without a budget is twofold - time and money. If you had money then you’d have more time. If you had more time then people would be able to get deeper into their characters. That’s tough to do when you have to shoot around work schedules, etc. everyone did the best they could but more time would have made it a much easier shoot and a much more polished shoot.

The best part of shooting is...that’s a tricky question. I would have to say that working in a collaborative medium, like filmmaking, is the best part - you get to try different things (when time permits) and everyone brings energy to the set.

Every film is a learning experience just like every life experience is something to learn from. Every personality is different and making a film is like trying to run a circus - different tents, lots of hats, the clown car, etc. in other words - a lot to manage.

I do wish I took the time to manage some scenes better. But time restrictions really put a damper on that.

Can you talk a bit about you the writer versus you the director? Did anything change from page to screen for you? Were there other people whose feedback you relied heavily upon?

The writer creates a vision and the director has to execute that vision. Obviously what you’ve dreamed up is from the mind of the writer and what you’re left with on film (or digital video) is the life of the director. Some things can translate from your mind to reality - others, not so much. But this could be due to time or money.

“The script is what you’ve dreamed up. The film is what you are left with.” George Lucas was quoted as saying this and I agree with this 100% percent.

A lot changed from the page to the screen. Sometimes it was a simple nuance, other times it was a line of dialogue that said by one’s self while writing sounds good, but when the camera’s rolling, didn’t sound quite right. The scenes and the story itself didn’t change or deviate all that much from the original shooting script. No one really gave that much input as far as changing the script, the script was really what I used for making my film be my film.

Is there anything you would like to say to all of our readers who are thinking of shooting their own feature films? Any advice or cautionary tales? What about choosing and using or licensing music?

Making a film is a huge commitment. If you aren’t passionate about it, then you shouldn’t be doing it. It’s time consuming and it really needs all of your mind in order to succeed. Try and make a film with something to say - don’t just make a stupid horror film or flavor of the month just because. Let’s say you want to make a horror film, make one, but make it unique, make it yours. Be different. People can say what they want about my films but in most cases they cannot be compared to whats come before.

Casting is the most important thing - build relationships and trust with your cast. This is most important. Listen to everyone and always be open to trying a scene a new way.

And if you make the film - finish it. See it through to the end. Even if it looks bad, finish it. You can always save a project in the editing room and even if you can’t - at least you’ll have a finished film. If I can finish my films then you can make yours.

As for music, I put an ad on craigslist stating that I was looking for music from anyone that wasn’t on a label. I ended up using music from people that I met online. They gave me their consent after I sent them the trailer and I gave them full credit for their contributions to the film. In the end, the soundtrack works and helps the film move along.

So what's next, both for Knock ‘Em Dead, Kid and for you?

‘Knock ‘Em Dead, Kid’ isn’t dead yet. The film is for sale on amazon VOD for rent or purchase and I am still actively seeking distribution for it. The fact that it ended up winning Honorable Mention and an official selection at this year’s Twin Rivers Media Fest was a testament to the film itself. I am still trying to find an audience for it and I am hopeful it will find a home somewhere. Without gratuitous nudity and violence, it has had some difficulty finding a home.

As for me, I shot a new feature this past September on HD. Once again, I went to LA, shot a film, this time in 2 weeks, and this time I made something distributors want. The two leads are female, they wear very little, and the story is more based on sex. There is a unique story, one that is very different, but this time I have a story about two LA girls instead of three Connecticut guys. Fingers crossed, this one too, will find an audience. I am just starting to edit this new film so watch for it in 2010!


Anonymous said...

Interesting and refreshing to see someone making low budget films with skill and will and not daddy's money. Kudos and good luck to him!

Chad Bowen Jr. said...

I agree with 'anon' - do it yourself and the possibilities are endless....

Tim J said...

I wanna see this, sounds good. Whwere can I see it?

Ma Monk said...

Good read - good luck with everything!

Rich Newbacker said...

Rock on! Great interview.