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Highlights from the New Directors Panel during the Chicago International Film Festival

November 7, 2010 | By | Add a Comment

Jessica Green

About the panel:
New Directors: From Shorts to Features

Short-format films are the perfect form to hone your craft and develop your storytelling skills. Moving into writing and directing feature-length films may seem daunting, but it doesn’t need to be. Come hear directors share their wisdom about moving from short to long-format work, discussing every step of the process from developing your approach to writing and directing through to festival screening strategies, distribution options, and more. Panelists include Cold Weather director Aaron Katz and The Defiled director Julian Grant. Moderated by Columbia College Chicago’s Tom Fraterrigo.

Panel New Directors

Columbia College was host to “New Directors; From Shorts to Features,” an event sponsored by the Chicago International Film Festival Wednesday afternoon. Three directors of various backgrounds spoke to an audience of about 30, and detailed the process of converting from making short films to features.

The event was moderated by Tom Fraterigo, a Senior Lecturer at Columbia and filmmaker himself. The directors Fraterigo interviewed were Julian Grant, a seasoned filmmaker with 29 features under his belt; Aaron Katz, whose film “Quiet City” was nominated for the John Cassavetes award at the Independent Spirit Awards; and Vardis Marinakis, whose short films have won a number of international awards.

The directors focused primarily on the process of creating a feature from start to finish, using their films that screened at the festival as examples. Grant directed “The Defiled,” a unique zombie film shot on location in Chicago. Katz’s film “Cold Weather” is a character study set in the mystery comedy genre, and Marinakis directed “Black Field,” a historical love story that was his first feature.

The Process:

Fraterigo: “What was the driving force behind the decision to go from shorts to features?”

Grant: “Shorts are great exercise. Think of it as going to the gym. Sometimes money, time and resources don’t allow you to work in features, but that doesn’t make shorts any less important.”

Katz: “I made shorts in high school and college, but I felt the idea of making features intimidating and hard to do. Even the lowest of low budgets is still $50,000- but then my producer friend said ‘why?’ Why don’t we rent the camera, call in favors, etc. This made it seem like a great idea, and possible to do with no money.”

Marinakis: “I had a tough time going from shorts to features. Shorts grounded me, but people can get stuck in shorts.”

Fraterigo: “Let’s talk about the development of the script.”

Grant: “I reverse engineered everything. Chicago has a rich theater community, which helped because I wanted to make a movie that was non-verbal. I wanted the picture to travel worldwide and still be understood. My first wife had left me and our new baby, and I thought ‘here’s a story that’s international, the universal theme of abandonment…and what if it happened to a zombie?’”

Katz: “I also utilized reverse engineering. You need to figure out what resources you have and how you can use it. Take stock with what you have, especially without money. Planning is free- it costs nothing and makes things run smoother. The first film I wrote about halfway through film school, and even though I felt good about it I thought I couldn’t make it without money. But having collaborators is key- everyone needs to trust each other. All three of my features have used almost all of the same crew.

Marinakis: “Limitations affect the script, like exterior deadlines. I wrote the script which was an expensive feature and wasn’t really thinking about production parameters. I had five or six ideas, and took about a year to complete.”

Fraterigo: “How did you finance your feature?”

G: “If you want to make a feature you need to sell something, a car or a kidney…But really it’s about asking how much do you want this. Are you doing it to get rich or famous? I do it because it’s all I have, I’m a filmmaker, a story teller, and there is only one person dumb enough to pay for this, and that was me. Do it for yourself and invest yourself in it. Work a horrible job you hate if you need to. There’s a myth that tools define the story- if you’re driven enough you can shoot on an iPhone.

K: “My first two films, the money came from me and the producers. I used to work in an antique pottery store, and was walking down the streets of New York one day and saw some pottery in the street that looked valuable. I picked it up, sold it on E-bay, and that’s how I financed “Quiet City.” You never know what knowledge will help you with your movie. But for my newest film we found an investor because of the success of our first two. “

M: “I used a government program in Greece that finances about 10 out of every 50 projects. They give up to 50 percent, which was about $280,000. The rest we got from friends and family.”

F: “Pre-production and production- what does it take to get the camera running?”

G: “Casting and rehearsals where in Chicago. Because it’s a non-verbal film, there was a lot of role playing. It was pretty experimental, so we needed to practice which we did for about four or five weeks. I was organized so we shot seven to eight pages every day. We shot for eight weekends, 12 hours a day. As a fan of horror, I knew what I wanted to see.”

K: “Try and be organized. I learned the importance of technical scouting of locations in film school. I came up with shot lists, but there were still some two hour sessions where we were finishing shot lists. If you have a new camera, get it and try it to see what happens. Preparation is simple stuff, but it’s easy to forget when pre-production gets frantic.”

M: “I had two revelations when making this film. The importance of the team- it has to be people you love; and for the procedure you need to find a process you like. Each artist has their own process.”

F: “Post-production- what was the timeline and what were the challenges?”

G: “I locked myself in my house and smoked and cut, then showed it to an editor friend and other people for advice. Because there is not dialogue in my film, the music, effects and Foley had to be great.”

K: “Post was fairly long. I needed other opinions because I directed the film, so the producers helped to look at cutting. I couldn’t lose sight and go crazy. Sound was important, bad sound can really turn off an audience.”

M: “I was a warrior, nothing could stop me in pre and production. It’s dangerous to lose sight when the war is over. You must see it with new eyes- what you shot and what you see in the shot is different. The director should never relax.”

Although they are all from different places and made very different films, these three directors came prepared to talk any aspiring filmmaker through the grueling process of making a film, especially during the transition from shorts to features.

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