Exclusive Interview: Director David Spaltro Talks ‘Things I Don’t Understand’

A short while back, I reviewed independent director David Spaltro‘s second feature film Things I Don’t Understand.  The film is the rare independent film that is thoughtful, introspective, well acted, and well made.  Unfortunately, the downside to plummeting equipment costs is the same as the benefit:  Anyone can make a movie.  All too often, that’s a long, boring, poorly planned, and horribly acted process.  So when a film comes along that actually achieves something despite its limited budget and the other thousands of obstacles that sit in the way of an independent film actually getting made (or for that matter, finished), it’s something of a minor miracle.  New York filmmaker David Spaltro is behind one of these miracles, and he has agreed to sit down to talk with us about Things I Don’t Understand, independent filmmaking,

The Daily Rotation:  The first, and often biggest hurdle for independent filmmakers is financing.  Without getting too specific, can you tell us where you looked for financing?  Did you go the Sam Raimi route, pitching doctors and lawyers?  Friends or family?  Crowd sourcing?  Film investors?

David Spaltro: My first film …Around‘s shooting budget was financed solely on 40 personal credit cards in September 2007 right before the credit crisis started.  I often would joke I caused or helped cause it.  I’d tried the traditional independent route of trying to attach talent or find a production company to produce it in association with, but no one would bite as the markets and industry were rapidly changing even before the economy tanked a year later and I had no previous work to vouch for the investment.  I always saw it as a kamikaze mission on trying to do a film for 150 in 21 days with 190 locations and I think part of the first films’ charm is that rough, almost demo feel.  Things I Don’t Understand was made with even less resources for money and no credit card magic trick, and ended up being a bit of a Frankenstein of funding in using a little bit of every method to raise a budget.  I pooled my own personal savings and funds, donations and pre-sold a tax incentive credit to private investors to help raise the similar amount of money.  It meant wearing a lot of hats and being very creative with our accounting and costs.  We originally had a hook-up through an actor to do our color correction at a post house in NYC, but when we came to them, they were imploding.  They were overbooked, understaffed, and mismanaged and the guy overseeing the place didn’t really have any honest urge to help us.  I used crowd sourcing and the support of some friends and cast to raise the 5k needed.  We took the film to Blase Theodore at Contact-Post DI in NYC who just did an incredible job.  He worked intensively with us to make our deadlines and gave us a color at an affordable price that was far better than any gratis we would have gotten from the other company anyway.  It worked out best for us in the end and the experience was overall better with him.

The Daily Rotation:  With the proliferation of remakes in Hollywood, do you feel that it’s tougher to get original material looked at?  Is that why you made the film yourself?

David Spaltro: One of the bigger changes in the game over the last decade has been the bleeding in of advertising’s idea of “branded content” and how something either needed to already exist with a fan base (a sequel, a remake), be able to be spun off (books, music, games) or be a spin-off of a previous form of media.  This adds revenue streams and cuts back on risk.  There’s also the idea that putting all the time and money into making something is even worth it unless it can make a huge amount of money so there’s this strange colorblindness when it comes to taking smaller risks on different or original material that could possibly turn around a big profit.  A lot of guys in charge, especially on the other coast, are more numbers and marketing men anyway; they keep the business side afloat and call upon the artists who can most easily work in that environment to turn out what they need.  I shopped the script around Los Angeles in 2009 to even smaller and edgier producers and they all loved the script, agents loved the script, but nobody could foreseeably imagine plunking any money into it because of not knowing how to easily market it.  I think there’s going to be an even more oversaturation of media and content both in Hollywood and other avenues.  People will find smaller and more interesting projects that are independently produced and distributed, as well as find them on TV that has become a lot easier place to take a risk and tell engrossing, character driven stories like Breaking Bad, or anything else you would see on FX, AMC, or HBO.

The Daily Rotation: There is a tremendous amount of technology available to filmmakers, at a fraction of the cost of what it costs to shoot on film.  You shot this film on the RED One camera, what benefits did it provide you in shooting?  Were there any limitations you found?

David Spaltro: The technology has definitely been a boon to the independent filmmaker in  being able to capture high quality images for less, or giving them far more latitude in shooting options and choices.  I think you still need talented shooters with an eye and ability to fully utilize the equipment to match up with the story.  You also have to think long-term in what kind of project you’re making and where it’s going to end up and make costs for that.  You have to invest in drives, where you’re going to edit, and what format to finish on as well as think about the venue you’ll most likely ended up being distributed on; giant movie screen, TV, laptop, iPod, etc.  I think you pretty much gain opportunities shooting digitally but you get different headaches or problems.

The Daily Rotation: For a modestly budgeted independent film, you shot extensively on location in New York City, which I think most people would flinch at just because of the unknown factors that go into location shooting.  Did you feel more pressure being on location with a limited budget, or do you feel it kept you better motivated each day?

David Spaltro: I think because I know NYC so well after living here my whole life and because there’s no other place that has the artists, energy and production value of this town I wasn’t too scared.  Our first film had 190 locations all over the city and we’d all kind of cut our teeth on that.  This was a lot more limited and I had time to really plan the attack and from lessons learned the first time out.  We’d pretty much set up the schedule for the shoot around where we’d be and kept it contained mainly to Greenpoint, Brooklyn for a lot of the film.  we lived in the loft set for a week, spent another half a week in the bar location, and our first week was upstate in New York at a rehab center that we used for our hospice and assorted office sets.  It was just planned out well  and we had certain things we had to do in order to qualify for the NY State tax credit which helped us design this plan of attack and fulfill requirements.  I had the support of dedicated production members like Jason Shahinfar, Lee Gillentine, and Matt Ashe, who just moved mountains when needed to and do the impossible with limited funds, resources, or time.

The Daily Rotation: Another obstacle for many independent filmmakers is finding actors with enough talent to give the director what he needs, and a quote that a lower budget feature can afford.  What process did you find your actors through?  Open casting?  Did you work with a casting agency?

David Spaltro: I’ve always enjoyed doing my own casting because I find that it’s just such an essential part to the process of making a good film.  When you have a lower budget and your film is about characters and story then actors and their abilities are your real special effect.  I wrote a few roles for people I had worked with previously like Molly Ryman (Violet Kubelick) and Nabil Vinas (Joe) and found an amazing family of new actors through online submissions in the summer of 2010.  Grace Folsom (Sara) was the true find of the film and I really think, as many reviews have stated, just is the heart and soul of this film.  She submitted through a simple audition video recorded on her webcam and just blew me away.  She killed it again in person and just seeing how different she was in real life from the character and how she turned it on like an electric switch was powerful and scary just how talented she was.  She’s also, as she might say, “sweet as pie” and was a great energy to have on set, probably the best actor I’ve ever worked with.  She, Lynn Justinger, Eleanor Wilson, Jenna Laurenzo, Laura Malone Hunt and a variety of others were just so great to work with on this project and helped make the film and the overall experience great for me.  I even got to collaborate with my former teacher, mentor, and good friend Lisa Eichhorn (Yanks, Talented Mr. Ripley) in a great return to form role for her which was a bit of a dream to do.  She was so supportive, knowledgeable and just brought a level of class, professionalism and ability to her scenes with Molly and the overall film.

The Daily Rotation: One of the biggest time wasters on any production is lack of preparation in directing choices and rehearsals with actors.  How long did you have before shooting to work with Molly, Grace, and Aaron?

I spent a good year putting together a team of actors and production members to bring the film to life while shopping it around and raising finances.  I always do a cast and crew table read for actors and immediate crew to just read the script out loud around a table and meet each other.  It’s extremely helpful to integrate everyone into the “family” but also a chance to hear the whole film out loud.  It aids in further rewrites and sets the tone for how people are going to play off each other.  I run a few rehearsals close to shooting in order to allow the actors to try out some improv or ideas as well as bring up any concerns and questions.  I don’t do it just as a machine of repetition but more to loosen people up in their roles, find moments, or add new ones to the film.  On set you’re always fighting time and it’s harder to sometimes play.  Molly had the biggest challenge in Violet as she had to undergo a big physical transformation with the help of our amazing make-up girl Amy Forsythe and costume designer Beth Anne Kelleher.  She and I talked and went over the character for a good six months and even then battled a bit on set to try and nail her down.  Grace began working on “Sara” almost ten months before we started shooting and really developed a full person.  Aaron Mathias (Parker) was cast last and really had to trust my vision on making him a bit more of a withdrawn, silent, and less emotive character, specifically more than he was used to playing as well.  Our rehearsals in my studio were key to getting everyone on the same page for set and every other actor I’d spoken to in depth or sent e-mails to for assistance in their parts.

The Daily Rotation: One of the biggest aspects that sets your film apart from a lot of independent fare is the excellent cinematography, and obviously a great director of photography is a big plus, but how would you describe his experience with the time (and in turn, money) constraints?  Was his process aided at all by the digital format?

David Spaltro: I met with Gus Sacks, our DP, about 8 months prior to shooting the film and out of all the other people I talked to he just seemed like the right fit and had the right attitude to get the job done.  He’s extremely knowledgeable with the newer technology and our options as well as having a photographer’s eye for composition and lighting.  He introduced me to the great production designer Emmeline Wilks-Dupoise and brough on a terrific gaffer Andrew Hubbard he’d worked with twice before so this time the trio was like a well-oiled machine.  It’s hard when working with great artists at a low budget because they do such great work under the time and sometimes location constraints and you’d always like to be able to give them more but you can’t.  I’m sure at times there’s a bit of a youthful frustration in not being able to do everything they wanted or hating to have so much be perfect or well-done and occasionally you just have to get something lit as opposed to “kicking the shit out of it”.  I think he really got the most I’ve seen anyone personally get out of the RED camera on this project and gave it a concise and wholly distinctive look of its own with his crew.  He also gave me the confidence that I could do some more artistic endeavors with the look of the film or the shot list, that was more freedom than I’d have before.  He had the key ingredients of both being knowledgeable and eager to challenge and grow and saw the film as an opportunity to showcase what he could do if given a chance.  I think he did a great job and I’d definitely would and hope to collaborate with him again.

The Daily Rotation: Typically, the biggest costs in a movie are the amount of people required, therefore the more days, the more it typically costs.  When you go on location, those costs only tend to rise.  How did you manage the cost effectiveness of each day?  Were there days where you shot less or more than you had planned?  How did you make up for days where you got less?

David Spaltro: I think it always just comes down to proper planning, thinking outside the box and surrounding yourself with a good team.  I had a tremendous cast and crew that really crushed it during some brutal days going into overtime and just a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.  There’s also making tough decisions to cut or rework certain scenes or locations in order to achieve the most or what is actually essential to the project.  I think you just learn the true meaning of sleep deprivation and making the best of situations when schedules change or last second decisions have to be made.  I find that the best thing you can do, as I did on my previous two films, is just make decisions even if you’re not a hundred percent.  You flinch or wait too long to overthink and you lose out anyway, so trust your gut and be informed of all aspects of what’s going on so you can make those quick decisions.  My team and I at this point are pretty much ninjas at squeezing every drop out of a dollar and putting it up on screen.

The Daily Rotation: Another aspect of filmmaking that often benefits from new technology is post-production.  Not that Things I Don’t Understand is an F/X filled movie, but what was your experience with the digital editing process, from dumping dailies to final locked edit?

David Spaltro: I had never worked with the RED camera in post before and had to update my system but once I got some of the tech bumps out of the way it’s all the same in terms of cutting.  It was really fun to edit in HD and see the quality of the work even in its raw, uncolored state.  Working with Blase at Contact Post was great because he was just so accomodating and passionate.  Because our team had done such a great job lighting the film the simple corrections were easy to do and we spent a lot of time on the look of the film, doing some cool visual effects and just trying and playing around with things artistically and story wise that was just a lot of fun.  It’s helped me understand more what is achievable with the latitude of the image (especially at that resolution) and hope to incorporate even more in future films.  We also worked with brilliant graphic artist Tony Hudson who cut his teeth for years on various features and commercials and at ILM who did some titles for us on the film that helped elevate the overall feel and look.

The Daily Roation: Finally, what plans are there for the release and distribution of the film?  Are you hitting any film festivals?  What are your thoughts on new digital distribution options for independent filmmakers, like Amazon’s CreateSpace and Distribber?

David Spaltro: I’m taking the film on the road starting in mid-April and hitting up potentially 38 festivals in the states and abroad to spread the word while simultaneously talking to different sales reps and agencies about representation.  My goal is to build a buzz around the film much like a rock band doing road dates for a year or two and then releasing their album so the fan base can have easy access.  I’m not opposed to any kind of theatrical distribution, but I feel like going to DVD-VOD-Internet-Cable allows instant, easy and affordable access to our film to be seen anytime and anywhere, which for a film with our themes is essential.  We had tremendous success working on our first film …Around which built up a great critical and festival buzz before going online through Cinetic’s Film Buff and ended up on Netflix and eventually PBS in NYC.  I think Things I Don’t Understand has a lot of potential and I’m eager and excited to start traveling and showing it around but  also to move on to new projects I have and put this chapter behind me as well.

There you have it, from the man himself, further proof that the ideas of filmmakers like Kevin Smith still live on in the next generation.  It’s also an interesting peek at the advantages of shooting digitally, and working creatively to get the most out of a small budget with a talented cast and crew.  For more on Things I Don’t Understand, keep an eye on the site as I’m in the process of trying to set up interviews with David’s actors Molly Ryman, Grace Folsom, and Aaron Mathias to get their perspective on making the film.

We’ll be sure to keep you updated as Things I Don’t Understand makes its way toward distribution, letting you know when and where you can eventually see the film for yourself.

Keep an eye out for more interviews, as I’m in the process of doing another one with independent filmmaker Joe Doughrity about the production of his film CornerStore (now making the independent rounds theatrically), his experience in the studio system, and his other independent ventures.

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