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My first film festival!
11.07.11

Last night, my short, "Will & Fiona" screened at the Iron Mule Short Comedy Film Festival / Screening Series [link]. It's a monthly event held at the 92Y Tribeca where they screen shorts from all over the world and have a Q&A afterwards with the directors / producers / actors / etc. It was a delightful event and the first time I've had a film screen at a festival type environment (my web series, "The Consultants" [link] did screen at the Producers Guild of America's annual conference at Fox -- which was super cool -- but that had a very different feel to it than a typical festival.) I thought I would blog a little about my experience and also the creation of this project.

The short itself is super short -- only 3 minutes. There are some reasons for it which I'll get into in a second -- as well as some big benefits to being that short. The genesis of the short was one day, when I was walking with a friend of mine and we were trying to find a place to go for lunch. We saw a restaurant and she goes, "Let's not go there, that place is for poor people!" I found this to be an odd comment but then I played the "what if" game and said to myself, "What if instead of a restaurant for poor people... it was a restaurant where people went to have affairs?" I have no idea why that particular thought popped into my brain -- but it did and that was the genesis of "Will & Fiona." It's a short about a guy and a girl, one married, one not, one who thinks they're on a date (the married one), and one who thinks they're just work friends socializing (the unmarried one.) All taking place in a restaurant where people go to have affairs because the staff there is so discrete.

When we filmed the aforementioned web series, "The Consultants", it was broadly pretty successful. We ended up being named a finalist in a Producers Guild of America's competition and I was invited to present it at a conference at the Tuck Business School at Dartmouth (which was pretty awesome and a little surreal :) ) The downsides were that I never figured out how to really build an audience and it was a ton of work to produce -- so much work that we never ended up producing any more episodes after the initial 4. Thus, I was racking my brain trying to figure out how to just get more stuff done.

On the content side, I wanted to keep developing my skill as a writer and I started working with Nick Wiger, who is a writing instructor at UCB in L.A. He's terrific and coaches privately (if anyone is interested, email me and I'll send you his contact info) and we started working on a number of sketches. My goal was to have a bunch of material that was lightweight to produce (e.g. takes place in a single location.) With his wonderful help and guidance, I came up with "Will & Fiona" and a number of other scripts. With my frequent producing partner, Kate VanDevender, we ended up shooting it at a bar in Los Angeles called M Bar (which is owned by an actor so they're very friendly towards production crews) in September. We edited it quickly and then started submitting to festivals.

A few notes. I didn't fully know this at the time, but it turns out the short short films are easier to get into festivals than longer films. So for instance, it can be easier to get a 3 minute film into a festival than a 17 minute film into a festival -- the reason is because it's harder to program for a longer film, you just need a bigger block of time. But if you have something like 3 minutes -- if you like it and it fits, it's not that hard to slot in. So this definitely worked to our advantage (and I've subsequently heard this feedback from a number of festival programmers.) This goes counter to almost the general conception of what a short film is because I think most people think of a short film as being something around 15-20 minutes. But a film is a film -- as long as you can tell a complete story in a given set of time, you're still good to go. 

"Will & Fiona" is starting to get into festivals which is pretty cool -- I've only been as a participant in the past so it's great going as a filmmaker. (By the way, one of the organizers told me they had 106 submissions this month for the 6 slots so, to be blunt, I was actually kind of surprised we got in :) Statisticaly those are terrible odds!) This festival is on the smaller side but it's in a wonderful location (gorgeous 75 seat theater) and there's a really nice reception area / bar / lounge where there's an after-party. I would estimate that the crowd was about half filmmakers / half local folks who just like film or comedy. The festival is run by two filmmakers -- one has made a couple of features and 30+ shorts while the other recently co-wrote a screenplay for Marvel with Stan Lee. They're also quite funny and have a great schtick on stage to keep things moving and very light.

I really loved the other films that screened and laughed at every one of them. One was a short essentially about moms and baby strollers in Park Slope which, while obviously having a very specific regional feel, is one I know all too well as I used to live in Brooklyn Heights. I actually got kind of nervous in my seat watching the other shorts because "Will & Fiona" went 4th and I so liked all the other films and started thinking to myself, "I really really hope they laugh at "Will & Fiona"." And they did! The first thing though, I will say, is that the footage looked great on the big screen -- such a testament to our wonderful cinematographer, Daniel Lynn. And they didn't do any sort of post work to the footage (at least as far as I know). They asked me for either a DVD or Quicktime -- I gave them both, and they just played the full res Quicktime file and that was it. I had only previously shown it to my brother -- so it was a little weird watching it in an audience full of strangers and seeing what they reacted to / where they laughed / etc. I had seen this film at various incarnations -- when I wrote it, being on set and playing "Will", when it was edited, and finally now watching it as an audience member with other people. I think the biggest takeaway for me is to keep putting yourself out there in terms of jokes / funny moments / etc. -- you just never know what lands, what lands big, what lands small -- they had a guest judge who did a lot of TV writing and I remember at one point that he laughed heartily at a joke that no one else laughed at which I thought was great! (and also very informative -- to not worry about whether every joke lands for everybody.)

The entire Iron Mule community was great though. Afterwards we got to just hang out, grab beers, and later went to a bar where we chatted more. Quite a number of folks very generously came up to me afterwards and complimented me on the film -- which obviously I really appreciated. It's kind of weird for me to be complimented on anything comedy related because I definitely don't think of myself as funny -- in fact, the reason I do a lot of comedy is mainly because of medium. Comedy lends itself to the web (and to shorter pieces often) -- and that was that. So it's not necessarily part of my identity in the sense that I think, "Oh, I want to be a funny guy!" but it's always nice when people compliment you on your work.

It was really terrific getting to know other filmmakers. I was talking with one of the other filmmakers and she was telling me about the logistics of shooting on NYC streets (not as hard as I would've imagined!) She actually has a really interesting story. Iron Mule has a "Wanna be a star?" contest where an audience member can be part of a short film that gets screened the following month. (Basically, audience members who want to can enter a random drawing to be in a short film that will be written, shot, and edited all in time for the following month's screening -- pretty great and a little intense!) In any event, Melinda was the director for this month's "Wanna be a star?" film and wrote and shot a really cool short film with lots of references to the film "Chinatown". But she pulled together a good looking film in a month, with no money, shot in multiple locations throughout NYC -- it was just great. I know some of this sounds strange, but as someone who has dealt with the nuts and bolts of production -- I'm always so impressed when people do things that look good, do it cheaply, secure hard to get locations, shoot in places that I haven't shot before, etc.

Hopefully there's more to come! We recently got into a Las Vegas film festival and are still waiting to hear back from others. I think the big thing for me though is basically around getting things done. I definitely encountered a fair share of "Why are you doing this?" type comments when I was initially working on it. Well, the reason is because when you have material -- you can put it out there and see what happens. It's great learning -- and I'm always looking for vehicles where I can just improve as an actor, writer, and producer -- and great fun too. It was a lot of fun pulling the project together and obviously I had just a wonderful experience last night too.

One of the things that I like to do in L.A. is to go to a lot of Q&As where various directors, producers, actors talk about their work and background. One really strong common thread is that they all somehow found a vehicle for them to hone their craft. For some of them, it was a break -- they got on a show and then got exposed to great people and went to work every day. (This is largely how I view myself and tech actually -- I obviously benefitted greatly from just being able to work at places like amazon.com and Google.) Others didn't get that break or were too young to get that break and instead just did their own stuff -- started making movies when they were 12 or shot a short every month for a year (Ruben Ortega did that) -- and it was just more and more opportunity to work and improve. Hopefully this and other things will be that for me.

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