BLOG: Business Case Study of Choch

SAIT student and fellow independent filmmaker Nick Haywood is writing a case study of my film Choch for his Business of Film class. I enjoyed answering his questions and thought some of what I had to say might be of interest to the audience of the film and my other work.

NH: Where did the inspiration come to center your primary existential questions on the social symbol of a Choch? Was this from personal experience?

BP: I wanted to represent a character who thought of himself as an ugly, awful person. I also wanted the the audience to make this recognition right away. So I thought of the kinds of people in my world that were conventionally viewed in a negative light. Working in a mall at the time gave me a great deal of exposure to a certain sort of machoistic, superficial, and generally not very bright young adult males that my friends and I referred to as a “choch”. Around the time there was also different variations of this stereotype beginning to manifest itself in the media, sometimes seriously and sometimes satirically. I remember distinctly being inspired by the “my new haircut” viral YouTube video which mocked the frosted-tipped sexists who frequented the bars in Queens. I realized that the common recognition of that stereotype, and the common reaction, I could harness to tell my story. I wanted people to react to the main character in our film the same way they react to a choch. I wanted them to see him the way he sees himself; as someone pathetic, vain, shallow, vulgar, etc. Once we had that initial emotional reaction to those characteristics from the audience, I could begin to explore my central theme by casting doubt on the legitimacy of that reaction, and in doing so suggesting that people aren’t what they appear, and that identity is something mediated and a constant source of discontent. Readings of my film as being a sympathetic study of the choch subculture are interesting, but not really what I intended. It would be more accurate to say that I use a commonly understood stereotype as a jumping point for an emotional understanding of the person we are portraying.

NH: What did you personally have at stake with the film, what did you want to get out of it, apart from obvious critical and commercial success?

BP: Making films for me is an emotional imperative. I make personal narrative films that attempt to communicate my feelings to the world around me. If my film fails to be understood, and if no one recognizes any of the themes or emotions that I am trying to express, then I am not only failing in art, but I am also failing as an individual to make a connection with people. Cinema for me is a very meaningful outlet to both understand others and be understood myself. Making a film and showing it to people is about exposing myself in the only way I am comfortable doing so. When people come to see something that I have made and are affected in some way, I feel as though we are transcending the social barriers that separate people to share some common experiences or perceptions, although I could never articulate to them in words what it is that we share. In a sense watching a movie is a reminder that we need never feel alone with our thoughts and feelings, because there are many others who think and feel the same way we do. You could say I made Choch to reach out to people who felt the same way about the themes of the film that I do. If there is no interest in the film, or if people don’t respond to the film when they see it, than perhaps I’m more alone that I thought I was. If an audience does discover the film, and if they do respond to it, than maybe I’m not as isolated as I feel sometimes.

Then of course I have my own financial well-being on the line. I self-funded the film having no expectation to make any of the money back. I did this while also paying for my own educating, housing, and food during the school year. It’s a dangerous way of doing things, but for the reasons I previously described, it’s something I really need to do. The financial constraints on my life I think are probably pretty obvious to most people.

NH: Being a heavily improvised film, how did you approach the development process in terms of script and pre-production?

BP: I knew at the film’s inception that because of the kind of performances I wanted to elicit, I wouldn’t write a conventional, overly detailed screenplay. The naturalism  and spontaneity I was seeking could only be attained by giving the actors a lot of room to create their own movements and discover the most comfortable line readings. The really difficult part was knowing how much of a script to write. I had to decide how much to leave to the actors and how much I needed to keep under my control. The most important part of making that decision was the casting of lead actor Zach White and our subsequent discussions about the film we wanted to make. Once I was confident that Zach and I could successfully flesh out a psychologically realistic and complex character without putting everything in writing, I basically just set out to write a script that would place our character in different scenarios and force him to react. For the protagonist’s main group of friends, I cast three especially energetic actors and asked them to improvise entire portions of dialogue around key points I wanted them to hit. I left them free to create characters that satirized the stereotype of the choch as they understood it. For the main female in the film I cast a good friend of mine who actively embodied the strength and constructively confrontational behaviour of the character, and because she was less comfortable doing dramatic improv I made her portion of the script much more detailed. The process of writing the film was a constant consideration of where I needed to maintain tighter control and when it would be best to leave things to discovery and intuition. If I knew that at a particular point in the narrative I wanted to convey something more specific, or if I knew that the actors needed more to build from, than I would write more and provide more direction. If there was an instance when what I wanted to express was harder to define, or if the actors had the potential to bring more to it during shooting, then I would write less. And of course the script had to be detailed enough so I could do a breakdown and gather all the locations, props, and costumes we would need. Ultimately the shooting script was about 47 pages, and the final film is 95 minutes.

NH: Did you seek third-party financing before deciding to self-produce? If so, what made you decide against that choice? If not, what were your reasons for an internal production model?

BP: I did not seek third-party financing before deciding to pay for everything myself. The first and most obvious reason for that is that I didn’t really need that much money. I knew I could make the film for next to nothing, and I didn’t feel as though I needed to wait until I had more money because, according to my own valuations, I knew that it wouldn’t make the film a lot better. I think that often filmmakers elect to hold off on their passion projects until they have a pile of cash to make it happen, and I’ve noticed that more often than not these films fizzle out and never get made, because it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever get the money you think you need, want, or deserve. I’d rather make my film with the resources I have than wait for the money I likely will not get, and in waiting potentially have the film die. 

Also, I don’t like the idea of relying on someone else to give me to permission to make my film. People with money and power shouldn’t be the gatekeepers to cultural expression, whether they be in the form of financiers, distributors, or philanthropists. I relish the opportunity to spurn production models that reinforce dominant systems of control in the film community. Independence obviously comes with it’s own set of challenges, but the advantages I think greatly outweigh the limitations.

I’ve considered pursuing different arts grants, but I’ve been soured on the process by anecdotal evidence from various peers who have been disappointed after their extensive, futile efforts to get funds from Telefilm, the Alberta Arts Council, the NFB, and other sources. I’ve also noticed that arts supporting institutions although they purport to support upcoming talent who need the most assistance, they tailor largely to artists who have already established their reputations and have found some sort of niche audience for themselves already. Feature length narrative cinema is also hard to acquire funding for because it’s perceived as a commercial medium rather than an art form. I think my luck exploring these funding sources might be better after I’ve already done some more films like Choch on my own. 

I certainly look forward to a future where I have had enough success with my films to garner some financial support from people who want to make uninhibited cultural contributions to the community with little hope for return. But for now I’m content to self-finance until the films I want to make demand that I pursue other means.

NH: How did you acquire financing? Did you put together any fundraising parties etc, or was it already in the bank?

BP: The $1300 spent on the production of the film came from my savings and from income earned working a part-time job during the summer. This summer after our screening series in Calgary we managed to raise an additional $1040 to put towards post-production costs (film festival submissions, DVD production, etc) from 25 backers through a crowdsourcing platform called Indiegogo. We offered the film online for free for a limited time (2 weeks), and then invited the audience to contribute to our campaign and receive rewards for different levels of donations. 

NH: How long was your Principal Photography window? What sort of challenges or variables came up on set?

BP: We shot part-time over a period of three weeks in August of 2010, with one additional shooting day during early January of 2011. The greatest challenge was getting everyone’s schedules to line up so we could get all the necessary talent together on the same days. Everyone had other time consuming obligations to attend to during the shooting period, so we had to tailor our shooting schedule to a mixed bag of availabilities. Shooting so sporadically and so totally out of order presented performance challenges for the actors, especially Zach, and made it more difficult for me to build upon the scenes we had already shot. We also never had the actors for very long spans of time, as we were often shooting in the evenings after working hours, so we often couldn’t spend as much time as I would have liked on every scene. Working so quickly also meant that we often made mistakes that had to be made up for with reshoots. I think we reshot two or three main scenes due to major continuity issues, technical screwups, or performance problems. Shooting on location under considerable time restrictions introduced a number of technical variables that had to be problem-solved with urgency, not to mention the hazards and emotional insecurity for the actors dressed up as choches out in public. The biggest setback was not finishing the film in the summer and having to shoot one more scene in January. But for the most part, all the most challenging parts of the production were established before shooting by the limitations of the budget, and were therefore things we could prepare to deal with in advance. We didn’t really have anything hugely detrimental come up during the course of the shoot. 

NH: You edited the film yourself, was that a creative, or economic decision? Did that affect your sense of objectivity towards cutting the film a certain way? 

BP: It was totally a creative decision, there was no economic motivating force at all. I definitely have enough peers interested in editing that I could have had someone do it for for free if I so desired, but I refuse to relinquish that kind of control to someone else, particularly with a movie like Choch. But editing has always been an integral part of my creative process. I direct the film with the anticipation of editing it. I know what I can and cannot get away with while we are shooting based on my experience as an editor and my vision for the editing style of a particular film. Choch is partially characterized by jump cuts and temporal rupture as both a practical way to finesse the improvisation, but also as a way to suggest that the formal elements of the film itself resemble the character in many ways. The editing reveals itself, and we see discontinuous assemblage of the film from a diverse selection of sources, like we see the character as a partially constructed set of different influences. How to even begin trying to describe this style to another editor would be a puzzle in and of itself. But I think mostly I feel that the editing process demands a more rigorous attention to your footage. You understand better what you’ve collected during the shooting process, and are in a better position to modify your initial vision to suit what you’re now presented with. On this film it was also essential that I find the beats within the scenes, and in the overall arc in Zach’s performance, because they were so subliminal or even nonexistent during the shooting. Sometimes during filmming I would have to artificially step in from behind the camera to direct them to move on to the next action or topic of discussion. All the things you need to make a scene work we didn’t really find in a conventional way. It took a lot of faith on my part to let the actors go, not shoot any coverage, and trust that with the editing style I envisioned I would be able to piece the film together. And finally, as I discussed previously, the film is a personal story. It would be uncomfortable and completely in opposition to my motivations as a filmmaker to offer these pieces of myself to someone else and have them assemble an emotionally honest expression of who I am. They don’t know who I am and how I feel, and therefore cannot hope to accurately convey what I have to share.

As for objectivity, I demand of myself at all stages of production that I be able to motivate all my creative decisions through the filter of the central theme. I have to admit that I am not an average audience member, and I am not emotionally separated from what I’m watching. But I am capable of asking myself the purpose of the overall editing style, why the rhythm is the way it is, why I’ve chosen certain takes over others, etc. I don’t think you can ever be certain, now matter how much of a master you are, of what are absolutely the most effective editing decisions. You can only hope to be able to motivate your decisions and explain how they are supposed to function to communicate to the audience. I think that rationality, being able to explain your choices, is the key to being a successful editor of your own work. Objectivity isn’t something I really aspire to, because my filmmaking practise is about speaking subjectively.

NH: You worked off of social media network indiegogo for your exhibition, distribution budget. Was that a conscious choice from the get-go? Was this a solution to a financing problem you came across during production? In retrospect, were you happy with this off-kilter approach?

BP: Crowdsourcing platforms like Indiegogo and Kickstarter demand that you develop a significant online presence and very actively engage with different forms of social networking. After the expense I incurred self-programming our screening series in Calgary, I looked at my accounts and knew that I would have to seek outside help to get the film out to a wider audience. I strongly believed in the strength of all the performances in the film, particularly Zach’s, and thought that the actor’s efforts deserved much better than the disappearance of the film into oblivion. Around the time and in previous months I was seeing many stories of filmmaker success on these online crowdsourcing platforms, and was attracted to the democratization of the funding process. I realized that the only reason why anyone would support my efforts to distribute to the film to a wider audience would be if people watched the movie and decided it was worthwhile. Based partially on the success of Gregory Bayne’s Person of Interest campaign, I came up with our strategy of offering free viewings of the film and asking for donations. I did my best trying to begin a social media echo, but struggled to convince people of the importance of their efforts, and never really reached beyond the initial audience of the film. However, we did manage to accrue over 500 views of the film in 2 weeks, and we did successfully meet our funding goal. I was very grateful to the few backers we did have, and any future that the film has I owe to them. But I was disappointed that we didn’t reach more online strangers with our campaign. I was also frustrated with the costs that are incurred during the collection process, as not all of the money raised goes right to the pocket of the campaign organizer. Some of it goes to the platform, some to PayPal, some to your bank. So although $1000 raised may seem like a lot of money, after all the deductions (including the cost of fulfilling the pledge rewards), the amount we have to spend on distribution efforts is actually quite small. That said, I would not hesitate to go through the process again in the future. Crowdfunding is an exciting way to empower and connect audiences and artists. It totally levels the playing field and asks the online community to determine what projects do and do not deserve support, as it should be, and not some Hollywood studio or some award jury.

NH: All independent shoots have a tendency to acquire eleventh hour challenges. Could you elaborate on said challenges, and how you overcame them?

BP: The biggest challenges that came up last minute were schedule changes from the cast and crew. People unable to get out of work when they thought, getting tied up with other things, not making the film a priority, etc. The only way to deal with that sort of stuff is to have a host of stuff you are ready and willing to shoot on any given day if your initial plan falls through, and by strong arming people a bit. I was frequently trying to persuade people to be more firm with their boss, trying to impress upon people the imperative of their efforts to be available, and generally putting people in tough positions to get something out of them. I don’t recommend it, because you can incidentally rub people the wrong way sometimes, but it was a necessity during this shoot. It was tricky trying to judge when I should let things slide and readjust my plans, and when I should lay down the law and try to force people to adhere to the film’s needs.  

But the biggest specific nightmare was shooting the last scene in the film. Not only was it the hardest location to obtain, but the hours in which we were allowed to shoot by the locations I was able to get access to was very restricted. On top of that, as the summer was drawing to a close, the cast’s schedules were all becoming even less flexible than they were before, and the reshoots had also put me a bit behind schedule. I recognized at the end of August that I wouldn’t be able to shoot the final scene during the principal photography window I had initially set up. I thought briefly about ending the film in some other way, but quickly concluded that what I had written really could not be compromised on. So despite all the continuity challenges posed by what would turn out to be a four month shooting gap between summer shooting and our final day in the first week of January, I returned to Vancouver to edit the film in the fall and planned to return to Calgary to shoot the final scene over the Christmas break. 

When we finally did get to shoot the scene, it was an absolute disaster. I had the same struggle to find a decent location, and had to sacrifice a lot visually just to get something that would work. Then I had to drag the actors, who with the exception of Zach were no longer really engaged with the project, back to the film for a single day very early in the morning. It was a miracle we got everyone together, and when we did, I ended up only having three hours to shoot the scene. The location couldn’t give me the control over the light that I needed, and I could only shoot roughly 250 degrees worth of the space. If that all wasn’t bad enough, I couldn’t get any extras to show up to fill out the space. Trying to do eight two-camera setups in three hours without proper lights or a full-sized crew or any background performers is not a feat I would try to tackle again, but I think we managed to pull it off quite successfully. People frequently site the final scene in the film as being one of their favourites. 

Overcoming things like this, eleventh hour on set challenges, I think are all a combination of resourcefulness, vision, and bullheaded commitment. You need to be able to prepare an exact vision for how to make a scene work, understanding all the shots and how to achieve them, but also be nimble and confident enough to discard what is incompatible with your circumstances and adapt accordingly. And sometimes it demands pushing aside all the doubts in your mind and ploughing forward, even if you know you’re likely to fail. I admit that when I got to set that final day and saw the hand I had been dealt, I thought for a moment that it was impossible to get the scene. Instead of getting frustrated and wallowing in despair at the perceived impossibility of your situation, instead of letting practicalities stop you from making your film, I personally try and let them spur me on and make me more creative. I think that attitude is vital not only during crunch time, but also at the inception of any independent film. 

NH: On the flipside of my previous question, inspiration can be found on the fly within an independent shoot. Could you think of the most unexpected, interesting elements of the project that you benefitted from, unbeknownst of your prior expectations?

BP: As both a director and a camera operator I was in a constant state of discovery and renewed inspiration while I was watching Zach. Instead of me dictating to him who the character was, Zach was revealing him to me as we shot. And because there was no rehearsal, I explored the action as it happened with roaming close-up camera work. I could pursue what I wanted at whatever pace I felt was right. If it felt right to move the camera over to another actor, I could. If I wanted to explore the space the characters were inhabiting, or certain props they had, then I could do that. Certain things I decided to emphasize before shooting, but many of my favourite moments in the film I found and emphasized as they were performed. I was constantly surprised by what the actors could throw my way when I stepped back and let the cameras move a little freer. This speaks not only to my interest in performance, but in my formal exploration as well. The movement of the camera and the framing, and consequentially the editing, were also birthed in each moment. I expected to capture naturalism and spontaneity, but I didn’t anticipate that the film would transform so much as we were making it. I have never made a film that strayed so far away from my original ambition, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the result.

Brendan Prost