Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The League Interviews - Filmmaker David Spaltro

The League recently had the pleasure of speaking with independent filmmaker David Spaltro, who recently completed his first feature film, ...Around. ...Around, a "love-letter to the City of New York" follows Doyle Simms from his turbulent New Jersey home to homelessness in Manhattan as he attends film school. Though living in Penn Station and attending school by day, Doyle develops an odd sense of both home and family with the colorful people he meets over his college career, including Saul, a homeless man who shows Doyle the ropes, and the beautiful, aspiring actress Allyson. ...Around is a commendable first effort by writer-director Spaltro, who shared some of his experiences and thoughts on making the film with the League.

David, thanks for taking some time to talk with The Screenwriters League about your feature film, ...Around. 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, basically where it all began for you.

I moved to NYC to attend the School of Visual Arts film program in the summer of 2001. I think I'd always been interested in storytelling and after gravitating away from fine arts and graphic novels I'd taken up both theater arts and a communications program at my high-school. I sort of got the best of both worlds education, and then coming to SVA and seeing how much of a collaborative effort Cinema was, how much was involved and the scope of what you could achieve with it, as well as being exposed to all kind of films I'd never seen before I think I really fell in love with the idea of film being a medium I wanted to communicate in.

OK. So, ...Around. This is based on your own personal experiences, right? What inspired you to write the script, and when did you decide to actually go the next step and make it into a feature length film? Was it a difficult decision or something you knew had to be done?

I actually fought against it in a weird way. After I graduated with some other personal stuff I was really burned out and left the country to go backpacking and working through Europe and then, after a few months back working odd jobs, I took a job teaching English in Korea. It was there, locked in my room during a monsoon season that I was able to write "...Around". I had been telling all these "NY Stories" while abroad, but I never thought I had an interesting concept for a film or that anyone else would deem worthy of viewing. It took Ulli Gruber, a good friend and former classmate of mine, over a cup of coffee to convince me to try and take my own personal experiences and work them into a script. Once I started it just poured out.

What is your writing process like? How long did it take for this to become a full-blown screenplay? Do you use a particular writing software? Is there music you listen to while writing? Any writing quirks you think helped you to complete the script?

I don't have a process so much as I just sit down and write. I usually have a concept and general idea of the story, but I don't block out character arcs or acts or write random scenes down. I usually just keep writing until it's all out, which usually conceives a far too long first draft. But, seeing as all first drafts need to be reworked immensely, I find to save the editing for after you've banged it out to be most helpful. If you're editing as you write down your first words, things change too much or it takes far longer. The first draft should be feeling, but that's not everyone's method. Though I use Final Draft to write the script and edit, as it's much cleaner and helpful for rewriting and formatting, I used to love writing a first draft by hand on legal ledger pads. Kind of archaic, but there was something about just letting the wrist move and energy go. I do listen to music, all the time, especially when I'm writing. Sometimes depending on the scene or the kind of project, it will dictate the playlist. When I was writing "...Around" I think I played a lot of The National, Broken Social Scene, and Rolling Stones.

As you know, The League's mission is to detail the work of aspiring filmmakers from the ground up, so can you talk a bit about how you went about developing this film from the get-go? What did you do first to get the ball rolling?

Once I had a draft of the script I started showing it around to friends, classmates, and actors I knew. It was originally going to be just something I'd do, almost like a workshop, very low budget and just running around with my friends. But people really enjoyed the script, even when they had notes to give to tighten and make it flow better. They saw a bigger promise and I thought I should go around and try and get it financed and make it the way it should be made.

Can you tell our readers how you went about raising funds for the film? What sort of budget were you working with on this film and how in the world did you manage it? Was there anything unexpected that you wish you'd seen coming in terms of budgeting?

I'd never raised money for a film before and while there are a bunch of established ways, like anything, there is no one way to do it. I knew that the easiest way to get money was to have a name actor attached to the script because a production company would see, at least commercially, a viable way to get their investment back. So I started cold writing agents and mangers through a free two-week IMDBPro trial. I got a lot of great response from both companies and actors reps about the script, but the companies wanted the name attached in a document before any money was promised and the reps wanted money in escrow before they committed. It was a catch 22 I tried to finagle around but the upcoming writer's strike and possible (still to this day) SAG strike made reps very nervous and everyone got booked fast. It was then I realized I'd have to finance it myself so I broke out the 40 credit cards. The hardest part is when you get into post and maybe need some more sound work, or in our case after our original sound guy did a shoddy job, a whole new mix that you find you’re out of funds. That's one thing to raise more, but if you're juggling numerous credit card bills it can be an almost impossible nightmare.

There are a lot of characters in this film, many of which have speaking rolls. What was the casting process like? The same with locations; you shot in a lot (and we mean A LOT) of places. How did you go about securing the ability to film in all of them, or did you? Is there anything about having so many actors and locations you'd like to share?

Definitely broke a cardinal rule of low budget filmmaking by writing in so many scenes and so many locations. The easiest thing to do is Reservoir Dogs and set it all in a warehouse or Clerks and put it all in a convenience store. But I was also trying to make a calling card for myself so I didn't want to do a conventional one location thing. I knew the story had scope and it's NYC so you need to show it, that's one of the main characters also. Luckily Lee Gillentine, our producer, hired a bunch of great art department and crew that built locations in the same places overnight and also got many sites permitted or worked out deals to shoot in several locations all over NY. I think we were averaging three locations a day, which to do one location move a day on a big budget shoot is a lot. I think it kept us on our toes, and there was sort of a do or die kinetic energy that we carried in. I definitely wouldn't recommend it unless you've got the incredible support I did.

Alright, so with all that out of the way, you went into shooting. How many days did you shoot and what was the process like? Who helped you plan everything and set the schedules? What was the worst thing about shooting? The best?

We had 21 shooting days out of 26 production days from September 2nd-28th 2007. Lee Gillentine was our line producer who did the budget and the hired and the crew and wrote a tentative schedule, but we'd been working with a few people that screwed up some permits and the shoot plan had to be revamped so our AD Grant Simone took over while Lee and a few PAs went about making sure the permits went through and other office tasks. Grant really came in and helped save the day a lot on set, kept everyone moving and kept thinking outside the box to achieve the day we needed to achieve. I think the salt of any great director is having a solid AD, especially on a hectic low-budget shoot like ours. I think running out of time to get everything we would have liked to get may have been the harder part of the shoot, but the best feeling in the world was being on that set with all those great people in front of the camera and behind it. I don't think I've ever felt more at home then on that set. I miss them all dearly.

You directed and wrote ...Around, so 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?

Sometimes, especially when it's personal, I believe you can be too close to the material. I think as director and writer, though, I had control of the vision I wanted. I could do a rewrite on set or if something fell-through alter it as needed. I was also constantly polishing up the script as I was rehearsing with Rob Evans and Molly Ryman so I'd be able to alter and add the character a bit towards what they did improv in rehearsals or to their own characteristics. I also had a lot of great notes from different individuals I respected and had worked for that helped me shape and shave the script into the tighter shooting version we worked with.

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?

I think if it's something you want to do and you love it there is no cautionary tale I could tell you that would stop you from doing it. At the end of the day, if you're passionate about your story and wanted to tell it you'll do it on a cell phone camera, which I would have if it came down to it. Just be honest with yourself and if you take the plunge then enjoy it and tell the story you want to tell. Don't sidestep that. Surround yourself with good people; it'll make the experience and end product all the better.

So what's next, both for ...Around and for you?

"...Around is currently on the festival circuit and working with Cinetic Rights Management a division of Cinetic Media on forms of digital distribution. We're also working on a tie-in soundtrack and have been approached by some distribution houses on a small theatrical run. I'm finishing up a script, "Things I Don't Understand", that I'd like to make my next directorial feature and bring in Molly Ryman, Marcel Torres, and Ali Tobia. I'm also working on a few scripts to put on the market for selling and am in talks about working on a pilot for an "...Around" television show that's gotten some interest. It would give a little more insight in Doyle's four years in NYC and several other characters.

Look for updates on both David and
...Around at www.aroundthefilm.com.

The Collaboration: Why The Ship Sank

About six months ago, Cake Man, Zombie, and I decided that we wanted to collaborate on a script. We were pretty gung-ho about it, and it wasn't long before we were exchanging ideas and nominating three concepts from a list of fourteen ideas that spanned several genres. The plan was to have this featured segment where I would report on our weekly successes and failures with the project. It was going to be informative, and hopefully inspiring. Half a year later and all I have to report on is why I think the project didn't work.

I'd first like to mention why I think collaborating is important, even though I have little experience with it. In my circle of writers we mostly envision a career where the concept is born in our mind, put to page by our hand, and sold with our name alone. The fantasy might be something along the lines of getting a call from an agent and finding out that two studios are in a bidding war for your script. Rarely do we fantasize about being commissioned to write an idea that isn't our own, or better the pages that another scribe already wrote, which is the more common reality of a working screenwriter. Collaboration is only a part of the equation, but I think you have to be trusting, flexible, and more detached than you normally would be with your own project because you don't have sole ownership. It's the flexibility that I'm most interested in, because looking at myself and my friends, I wonder how many of us could succeed if a concept was suddenly dropped on our table and we HAD to write that and not one of the ideas that we'd been toiling with in our heads for years. I don't think we'd manage very well, at least not right now. But the more versatile we are the easier it would be, and I certainly think collaborations could help in that regard.

So what happened with our project? The first thing that comes to mind (no particular order of significance) is the script concept. Not to say that we didn’t have a solid idea. We spent several meetings making sure that the concept was right for a first time collaboration and that we weren’t going to be using fluff for a first go. If we nailed the script we wanted it to be something we could push. The one thing about the script idea was that it was a balanced creature, designed to be manageable for different writers with varying interests and styles. We were all interested in giving it a go, but I think we lacked the sheer excitement that comes with starting a new script of our own. We didn’t absolutely have to write it like Cake Man had to write his Post-Apocalyptic spec, or like how I had to write my Action/Horror Western. The idea felt just right for all three of us, but not absolutely right, which I think it needed to be, especially given our differences as writers.

The question has to be brought up as to just how compatible the three of us were as collaborative writers. I’ll admit that between our trio there are some major differences in terms of style and interests. Sometimes Zombie and I seem a world apart, while Cake Man is more of the bridge. On paper we probably don’t amount to the ideal writing team, but part of me has to believe that as three trained writers we can successfully collaborate on a screenplay despite differences. A script is so skeletal, and though our time at NYU saw screenwriting students hone their creative abilities in different ways, our technical abilities were being developed the same. I anticipated that we’d be able to lay a functional foundation, and scratch and claw over the layers that we put over it. Unfortunately we never got that far. In Cake Man’s latest writing week he discussed the possibility of writing becoming a chore. I think the collaboration was a bit of a chore for all of us and several factors contributed to that, one of the most significant being the blessing of a steady 9 to 5.

Employment, as beautiful as it is in our current time definitely played a role in terminating the collaboration. But whereas the idea and our level of excitement may change, the reality is the factor of our day job will always be there (fingers crossed) through personal projects and collaborations until we find greater success as writers. It's something that just about all writers will have to deal with. In the end it boils down to our discipline and determination outweighing the fatigue of a 9 to 5 and other obligations. Our discipline was there with room for improvement, but the determination to get the job done faded fast.

2009 is still young and I hope that by year’s end I’ll be able to log some collaboration time. I expect that Cake Man and Zombie have their eyes set on round two as well. Even if it’s just pulling hairs over a first act, or simply banging out a few sub-par pages, it’s still a start, and writing tends to have that snowball effect where all you need is a start. I'm determined to give this process a go again, and I'll admit that it got the better of me as I'm sure it has many writers. What are your collaboration experiences like? Do you think it’s necessary, or even worthwhile?