This is the fourth installment of a ??-part series about directing my first feature.
Post-production. The "rocky shoals" of moviemaking. The slippery end of the second act going into the third act. Metaphorically.
You built up all this adrenaline. You wrote your script. You raised the funds (or the bulk of the funds). You shot your movie. Holy shit. Now you’re home in your little house on semi-lockdown with a life partner/producing partner who needs a break, but is also tasked with editing your movie.
The good news is: This is not the story of how my marriage fell apart in post-production.
The bad news is: I don’t know what this story is, exactly.
There are two other filmmakers who set out to chronicle “making ofs” for Pipeline Artists: Kay Tuxford and Jay Thornton, who made two radically different movies. I decided I should talk to them. Maybe they would have good stories about post-production. Or: Hearing their stories would give me clarity about mine?
From the very start of our conversation, Kay, who co-wrote and shepherded The Miseducation of Bindu from short film to Duplass Brothers-exec-produced feature, not only gave me clarity but reminded me, oh yeah, we’ve accomplished something huge. Thanks, Kay.
Here’s a condensed, lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Laramie Dennis: I got stuck trying to write about post-production. It's a little boring. And it was kind of stop/start. It took us 18 months basically to do the picture edit.
Kay: Well, when you're doing it on your free time on your indie-shoestring budget, that is what happens.
Laramie: Yeah. My first idea for this installment of the series was, and I'm not going to do it, but it was that triangle. The fast, cheap, good triangle.
Kay: Exactly, exactly. You can only have it so many ways. And the nice thing is the editor you're working with is your partner. So I'm assuming you guys can sit down at the house and look through a sequence and talk, where sometimes the thing that slows people down is they don’t have somebody they can sit down with like that.
Laramie: Right, it seems like so many more people are working virtually. I haven't done that with an editor. Also, Ricky and I were absolutely on the same page artistically.
Kay: Tell me about your project. How's it going?
Laramie: It's finished! It's finished, and we’re out to festivals.
Laramie: Yes. It's the waiting game now. We got the rejections from Sundance, Slamdance, Berlin. SXSW. We’re trying to be realistic about submitting to cool, second-tier festivals.
Kay: Some of those festivals are really hard—I’m gonna sound like a snob—for real indie films. With Bindu, we had the Duplass brothers on it, and we couldn't get Sundance to give it any time. We were told, "You’re definitely gonna premiere at Tribeca. Mark’s on it. Mark’s on it." And we couldn't get that spot. Even though we had two very well-known filmmakers in the indie sphere pushing. Because everybody's pushing.
Kay: There's more enthusiasm from some of the more eclectic film festivals. There's one I love I've gone to twice called Cucalorus.
Laramie: Oh, right! That’s on our list.
Kay: They have a pretty decent filmmaking community in Wilmington, and the people who are part of Cucalorus year-round will put up filmmakers in their house or sponsor them in an Airbnb. They are very cool about bringing writers or actors, not just the director, and they offer, I think, up to a $200 travel stipend. They want you to be there. And people show up. I had a screening at 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and when I looked out at the theater, it was pretty full. Wow, guys! So, yeah, I liked the energy. I think that's what you feed off of.
Laramie: And I think there's a danger at Sundance that you get lost if you’re not one of the big fish.
Kay: Yeah, it's very true that you get lost, or if you're playing at the same time as something else that's really big, you're not going to have a full theater. There are so many film festivals out here, and all of them want to push indie films, but they need big enough names to attract people, and they're fighting back and forth because that's how they get money …
(Laramie and Kay both groan.)
Kay: Okay, well, let's talk about post.
Laramie: You had an editor who was cutting as you were shooting?
Kay: Yeah. We had a really interesting problem, which is that we were filming in a school they were about to destroy. The school was closing down. And so we knew we would not be able to come back and do pickups. Prarthana Mohan [the director], and Ed—Ed is the producer and Prarthana’s husband—they decided, why don't we ship the editor out, and he can start cutting it while we're filming. Because if we miss something, we have to get it before we leave. And it was good for us. I recommend it. Not everybody has that ability, especially if you're the director, and then later, you're going to edit it.
Laramie: Or in our case, Ricky was actively producing the movie.
Kay: You can't do two things at once. So sometimes you don't have that privilege. But we did. It helped us several times where we realized we didn't have something that we thought we had, and we would schedule it for the next day.
Laramie: Can you think of an example?
Kay: There’s a big scene where the main character, Bindu, runs into another important character, a guy named Peter, and their blooming friendship that day really ties the story together. Peter becomes very interested in Bindu, and in her quest, she mistakes his interest for love. So we needed them to have a bit of a meet-cute. But we had rushed through their meeting so quickly, we didn't have any coverage. There’s this point where, it's kind of like a classic romcom—she turns around in the hallway, knocks his trombone case out of his hand, and everything goes clattering. We had no coverage of that, or any close-ups of them meeting each other. And it took our editor to be like, this person needs to be more special. We need to tell the audience he's going to be special. So, we went back and we basically picked up their entire meet again.
Laramie: I remember the scene. It’s important!
Kay: It wasn't there. If it wasn't for our editor being like, guys, you missed this … We were on such a tight deadline. We shot it all in 18 days.
Laramie: So, Mike [Villasuso, the film editor] was working really fast.
Kay: Yeah, he did a rough cut that was mostly pieced together by the end of the shoot. Then he spent another four months working and fine-tuning. This is where it's very helpful for the director and the editor to sit down together. I think they ended up spending almost two months, they would sit down Monday through Friday, most of the day, and just sit and watch it and do the edit and work back and forth. And Prarthana is very diligent, she'll go through every single bit. I'm sure you know, you're like, we went this far, let's not leave anything unturned.
Laramie: Yep. I want to ask, did your editor get paid?
Kay: Everybody got paid indie rates to be on set. And then Mike definitely got paid for the editing time he did afterwards. I'm guessing it was maybe a couple grand (although I wasn’t writing the checks).
Laramie: Right. It’s still a big favor.
Kay: Yeah. But he was happy to do it because he hadn't gotten an opportunity to edit a whole feature before. Also, he was a good friend of ours. And he wanted this movie to exist … There are two areas besides the edit that I think we weren't prepared for, or that we learned a lot from as a team. Prarthana was working with this really wonderful composer named Aaron Gilhuis, but she wasn’t used to telling a composer what she wanted. She felt like she was yanking his chain making him do all this work. He was so patient. He was like, let's keep going, we're gonna get it right, this is our first time working together. It finally came down to, when we were making the short film those many, many moons ago at Chapman, a lot of our background sounds were these percussive tango beats that kind of sounded like Bindu’s heart racing. Once Prarthana showed Aaron what we had done before, he got the idea of more drums, more rhythm, things like that, not necessarily piano or too thoughtful. And it created Bindu’s anxiety. It worked. But it took a couple of passes for them to be on the same page. Sure enough, nowadays they get each other’s shorthand. It takes time to build that rapport.
Laramie: There was another hitch in post?
Kay: We made a mistake, and we finished it for film festivals in that format. And then when we got distribution, we basically had to finish it all over again, re-color it. Because what's required for film festival format is different. We wound up distributing it online to VOD, Peacock TV is where it is right now. Ed said it monetarily didn’t make sense to finish it twice. His advice would be, if you're an indie filmmaker, don't bother doing a film festival finish. Just wait to finish it when it gets distribution.
Laramie: But you have to color it for festivals! For Where in the Hell, we were simultaneously doing the finishing two different ways. Our colorist kept his eye on two different versions, on separate monitors, the whole time.
Kay: It's good if you can do it that way. You might as well do it at the same time.
Laramie: It’s more technical than I expected, all the different specs for what you're outputting. We have a terrific post-production supervisor who knows all the right things to insist on, and the right questions to ask. Without Danielle steering us, we could easily have made the same mistake … Of course there may be some tweaks once we find distribution.
Kay: There is no scenario where you nail it the first time and the distributor has zero notes.
Laramie: Our sound designer prepared us for that, too. He told us, okay, they're gonna kick back this whole list, fixes, fixes, fixes, and we'll fix what needs fixing, but we can also push back on some of the notes and be like, nope, that's on purpose.
Kay: Yeah, yeah.
Laramie: Were you fully budgeted for the color correct and the sound mix and all the things?
Kay: We did have to do a final budgeting push. Basically, we went back to our investor and asked him for more once we got the distribution. It's a little bit easier to get the money at that point because you can show them how close it is to being a movie. You can be like, all we have to do is get the color, all we have to do is finish the sound editing. Once you say that people go, oh, okay. Yeah, I can see it, I'll help you. You're almost there.
Laramie: We went into shooting without having all the money because we thought, we just have to do it. And we did, like you said, we managed to pull it together. I mean, we got our last commitment for finishing funds a month ago. To have a movie in the can does help.
Kay: So, then the other parts of post … We passed the movie around quite a bit amongst our team for notes. Prarthana listened to everybody, and they kind of looked for, what things are being noticed by multiples of us that maybe would bother or confuse the audience. The biggest notes came from the Duplass brothers. We ended up cutting out a section. Considering the genre, it was really important for us that it's, I think it's a 95-minute movie. There was a cut that was getting up into 110 minutes. Realistically, there's nothing wrong with a 110-minute movie, but you get to a certain point in the story, and the audience is ready for resolution.
Laramie: We were gunning for a 90-minute movie. The script was 89 pages. And our first cut was two hours!
Kay: (laughing) It happens.
Laramie: It’s a road movie, and there's scenery, and there was some great improv … First off, we made a couple of big cuts that felt great. There were two scenes I just didn't love, and it felt amazing to cut them. But then the shaving down after that was hard. I had a couple of people be like, have you thought about an 80-minute movie? 80? We got to 88, with credits.
Kay: I'm a big fan of the shorter movie because I think it asks you as a filmmaker and a creator to be mindful about what you're putting out there. I've seen some really bloated indie films where I'm like, I don't know if you were discerning enough …
Laramie: Did you do any test screenings? We did a kind of virtual screening, basically shared a link with 15 or 20 people we trust, and we got some notes that were really helpful. You get to a point where you’re so close to it, you lose perspective.
Kay: We didn't, outside of our film team. The first time we had an audience was when we premiered at Mill Valley. And we were terrified. Megan [Suri, the lead] was there. David Arquette showed up.
Laramie: Was that the first time the cast saw it?
Kay: Yeah. And oh my God, thank God. It's a dramedy, but there are some very funny moments. When the audience laughed for the first time … I was like, we're gonna be okay.
Laramie: I’m looking forward to that.
For a window into a radically different approach to moviemaking, stay tuned for my conversation with Jay Thornton.
*Feature photo from The Miseducation of Bindu