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Charlotte Sometimes:
From $20K to Independent Spirit Awards

As published in Indie Slate Magazine Issue #30

By Eric Byler

The first questions that come up when someone finds out that my first feature, Charlotte Sometimes, was shot for $20,000 are “how” and “why.” The short answers are: Anything can be shot for any amount. And, at the time, I didn’t have any better offers.

Before starting at the beginning, I have to tell you something about the end. It’s true $20,000 got us through production, but we spent more than twice that in post production. The movie that eventually won awards and has earned two Independent Spirit Award nominations was greatly enhanced by a 35 mm film transfer, professional sound design, and a score composed by a world-class musician named Michael Brook.

Necessity & Invention
If you haven’t seen Charlotte Sometimes, let it suffice it to say it’s a tough sell– an Asian American “art house” film, with no household names and not even a hint of Kung Fu.
During my four years of searching for a real budget, I was told that a film from Japan or China would stand a better chance – there was no precedent, and therefore, no money to invest in an Asian American “art house” film.

 


On numerous occasions, I was asked to cast non-Asian people in at least two, if not all of the four lead roles, to justify potential financiers’ investments. I tried Asian American private investors and patron-of-the-arts organizations. But with my Caucasian last name, and my half-Asian looks, it was hard to convince anyone that I was a worthy spokesperson for the Asian American community.

If not for the rise of digital video production, I probably never would have made Charlotte Sometimes. To be honest, most of the early films of the digital revolution didn’t impress me. But after seeing a very successful Dogma project on 35 mm (The Celebration), I decided to shoot with whatever resources I could marshal. I asked a friend who worked in cable television what she thought an Asian American film might be worth to a cable channel. She said $20,000, tops. With that number in mind, I went to my parents and my uncles and basically asked for sympathy checks.

Bang for Your Buck
There are at least a dozen events – I mean incredible strokes of good fortune – without which Charlotte Sometimes would have been a waste of my family’s money. The first of these was an introduction to Michael Kastenbaum in December of 2000.

Michael was the only non-homeless person I had ever met who was in a worse financial situation than me. When I called him for the first time, he was working at a fruit smoothie stand in Venice Beach. (He didn’t mention this, of course). I knew him as the President and co-founder of Visionbox Pictures.

Michael assured me twenty grand was plenty enough to shoot a DV project. In fact, he’d shot several for ten. He convinced his partner/Visionbox co-founder John Manulis to offer me a production services deal. From that point on, the Visionbox team – which included producer/line producer/first AD Marc Ambrose and co-producer Brooke Dammkoehler – took care of the many aspects of production that I didn’t know how to do.

On Set
As director, the focus of production for me was always the actors and their performances. The cameras and other equipment were there to observe and record, never to intrude. In this way, digital video was not only a necessity, it was an artistic advantage.

We only had 14 shooting days, but with the light-weight cameras, inexpensive stock, simple lighting set-ups, and a skeleton crew ranging between one (me) and ten, we spent the majority of our time with the cameras rolling. The actors were never put on hold while we obsessed over tracking shots or focus pulls, and almost never had to “repeat for camera.” In fact, the only time it felt like anything other than the actors’ set was when we had complications with sound.

We used Sony cameras, sometimes one, sometimes two, sometimes three. We used two Sony PD 150s with 16x9 lens adapters for the first five days. For the next three days we added a third camera – a Sony DSR 500. The final six days were shot with a single DSR 500. Sound was recorded on DAT, except for three shooting days, when it was recorded directly into the DSR 500.

Most of the locations were within a one-mile radius, and all but two of them were fee-free. Under the SAG Limited Exhibition agreement, we paid our actors $75 a day, and paid our crew members the same. The largest expenses were equipment rentals and producer fees. I never paid myself, but I have deferred payments coming soon. The actors will also receive additional checks because our exhibition will go beyond film festivals.

Style & Character
I learned from early Altman films that certain stylistic choices add a sense of realism to a character driven film. For instance, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is the only Western I’ve ever seen where I actually believe I’m in the Old West. Likewise for The Long Goodbye and the detective movie genre.
In those films, scenes are essentially shot from one vantage point. There is cutting to change shot scale, or to shift eyes to another part of the room, but it’s clear the scene was not repeated multiple times “for coverage.” Intuitively, we get the sense that the events happened only once, and the camera could only catch what it could catch. With wide eye-lines, as opposed to over-the-shoulder shots that float in the character’s peripheral vision, we feel as if these characters are real people, who might not be aware of the camera’s existence. We are simply visitors in a world that existed before the film began.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller was the film I showed to DP Robert Humphreys during pre-production. The “one vantage point” approach not only lent itself to my artistic sensibilities, it also meant less time moving the camera and re-lighting, and more time with actors in character and cameras rolling.

We chose not to go with digital conventions. Most of the movie was shot on tripods. When we did go hand-held, we aimed at steadiness, rather than purposely shaking the camera. We planned for long takes, most of which were included in the final film without cut-aways, and lit and composed every shot as if we knew it would one day end up on 35mm.
As luck would have it, Visionbox and Alpha Cine Seattle got together to offer me a really inexpensive film-out deal. The result was so astonishingly beautiful, it surprised everyone – including me, including Alpha Cine, including Robert Humphreys, even Co-Producer Chris Miller who oversaw the whole deal. But that’s another story...

(click here for part two)