Fearing the Jump to Feature-Length Films

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Posted by Russell Hasenauer
Richard "RB" Botto Richard "RB" Botto

Today's guest post comes from filmmaker, Russell Hasenauer.

Russell is a producer and host for the YouTube channel Indy Mogul which reaches over 600,000 subscribers.  You truly need to check it out.  They produce an amazing amount of interesting, relevant, and instructional content.

Russell is also an award-winning short film director who lives at the Jersey Shore, but assures us he is nothing like those awful people on TV, and would rather everyone forgot about them.

He received his first camera for his 15th birthday in 1999 and has been making short films ever since.

Recently, Russell posted a five part series called The On-Set Experience, chronicling the making of his latest short film, Angel of the City, a throwback to 70s/80s action movies like Assault on Precinct 13 and Cobra.  You can find that here.

I thank Russell for not only being an active and supporting member of Stage 32, but for his contributions to the community.

Enjoy!

RB

I first began putting short films online in 2002, very shortly after graduating high school.  It was a simpler time, before YouTube existed and individual, low-quality mpg or wmv files had to be uploaded to your very own website for people to, get this, right click and save to their computers!  It was also a time when, if you told someone your goal was to be a filmmaker and that you made movies of your own, they would give you a very impressed, “Wow, really?” reaction, and be amazed that you could pull something like that off.

It was a rare thing back then, and therefore it was surprising that we were in such close proximity to another group of filmmakers living in the same town.  Our “company” name was Immortal Dog Productions, and theirs was Corner Pocket Productions.  If we all lived under the same roof, and this was The Odd Couple, they would be Felix and we would be Oscar.  They were FILM people.  CINEMA people.  We just liked making movies.  They looked at what they were doing as high art, and their attitude toward us was typical of the pretentious filmmaking type (to be fair before this story gets going, this applied to only some of them; a few of them were very cool to us).

While today I try to run my sets as professionally as possible (as much as my goofy sensibilities and attitude will allow on set anyway…), at the time we just wanted to have fun with it, and the fellows at Corner Pocket would look at us like we were not quite on the same level.  I enjoyed shooting videos handheld and shaky, which was derided as “ADD Filmmaking”.  They took a very patronizing attitude with us, like they were talking to children who just didn’t understand yet what they already knew.

The years passed and a mostly friendly rivalry continued between the two groups.  Our inner circles had a lot of overlap, so we always knew what was going on with their film careers, and they knew about ours.  There was a lot of talk of making a first feature film, from both sides.  We had a few ideas we were knocking around, as did they.  But I was always hesitant to pull the trigger.  Perhaps it was because I was only 20 years old or so, and still very green with filmmaking, but something was always in the back of my mind telling me that, if I tried to make a feature, it wouldn’t look ENOUGH like a real movie.  That was always (and still is) a big sticking point with me.  If I finally make the jump to making a feature-length film, I damn well want to make sure it looks and feels like one.  I don’t like when I watch independent films and, while watching it, can feel that SOMETHING seems amateur-ish about it.  Something that makes you realize that the film would NEVER be taken seriously by anyone outside of those who worked on it and their friends and family.  Allow me to explain.

Corner Pocket Productions began making their first feature film in, I want to say, roughly 2004 or 2005.  It was a process I was watching carefully.  I’ll be honest, at the time a big part of me was jealous of what they were doing.  I was also very impressed by HOW they were doing it.  They were shooting on the DVX-100 (which was about the best 24p camera you could reasonably afford at the time).  They had a huge cast.  They secured permits to shoot at the local aquarium in Point Pleasant.  They even had MILLION DOLLAR INSURANCE.  When you’re young and don’t understand how insurance for a film set works, that sounds like a big deal.   They were putting a lot into this production, and to this day, a lot of what they did still impresses me, especially for how young they all were.  They had the time, the money, the people to make this thing happen.  This was their shot at the big time.  Like so many indie filmmakers before them, they were going to show the world what they were capable of, and hopefully, HOPEFULLY, take it to all the big film festivals, get the movie bought, and go Hollywood.  There was just one problem.

Their movie was called My Pirate.  It was about a pirate who mysteriously time travels forward from… er, pirate-y times, to the modern day Jersey Shore (the place, not the show; that thankfully didn’t exist yet).  There, a couple of goofy slackers find him, and introduce him to the modern world, before battling with some futuristic villain who felt like something out of Highlander for some reason.

Now, I’m not saying there isn’t a good movie there.  It’s a silly idea, sure, but if done correctly, you could have a fun Bill and Ted style adventure comedy, playing up the fact that the idea is so goofy.  Like how Snakes on a Plane went with “We know this is silly, so just go with it”.  But a few issues:

The guy playing the pirate was clearly a 20 year-old kid in a pirate costume doing a bad pirate-voice impression.

One of the two guys that finds the pirate was wearing the fakest looking blonde wig you’ve ever seen to make him look like a surfer.

Most people acting in it were just friends of the filmmakers, not actors.

The set for the villain’s lair looked like a high school play.  Maybe middle school actually.

The villain was clearly in his 20’s and had his hair powdered gray.

Halfway through filming one of the leads quit the film because production was moving so slowly, and all his scenes needed to be reshot.  We actually visited the set one night, at someone’s home near the shore.  They were treating this goofy comedy like they were Kubrick and everything needed to be just perfect.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself, but we were on set for about 5 to 6 hours, and they spent, LITERALLY, the entire time setting up a shot of the two guys and the pirate at a dining room table, panning from right to left, from the guys to the pirate, with a total of maybe 4 lines spoken.  They had this on a jib for some reason, and spent that entire time getting the pan JUST right.  For one shot.  One shot that I would have just held in my hands and been done within 5 minutes.  I could tell that night the actor was going to quit, he looked so miserable.

Let’s bring things back around to the whole point of this blog.  The fear that I associate with making the jump from short films to feature films.  See, this movie, in the end, never got made.  We would hear word now and again that the film was “being edited” and would release eventually.  But it never happened.  As a side note, years later, just because I wanted to see what they had made, I offered to edit it for them, and actually received all the MiniDV tapes that were used.  I started the editing process, and by the second scene, I realized things were missing.  They hadn’t shot the entire movie, but thought they had.  Some scenes they forgot to reshoot and therefore only had with the original actor.  So I too gave up.

Okay, I’m getting distracted again.  The fear of going feature-length!  Let’s stick with it, Russell!

I look at what happened to this group, and I realize it happens more often than not in the indie filmmaking world.  You’ve got a great group of people, who work well together; they have the time, money, people and energy to get a feature-length movie made… but they jump the gun.  They’re not ready.  I’ve seen this happen so many times for so many different reasons.  Promising film group makes feature, feature fails, group falls apart and everyone involved starts settling for something else, be it a job that takes advantage of their skills, like making wedding/event videos, or one that doesn’t, and they just give up the dream altogether.

I wanted to be a filmmaker from the day I saw Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juiet in middle school English class.  I lived a pretty sheltered life when it came to film growing up, as I had very strict parenting dictating what I was allowed to watch (had to wait til I was 13 to see PG-13, etc), and that movie opened my mind to what was possible.  Then, when I started pursuing my newfound interest, I heard the stories of Tarantino, Robert Rodriquez, and of course, being from Jersey, Kevin Smith.  How they made their own movies, got noticed, and went on to bigger things.

Being an indie filmmaker for as long as I have been, you understand that the odds are always against that actually becoming a reality, but if you’re passionate enough, you keep striving for it.  People over the years have constantly asked me why I haven’t made a feature yet, and the answer is that I’ve been worried I’m not ready.  I’ve felt like if my big attempt at something fails, that’s it for me.

But eventually, you have to bite the bullet and just go for it.  I’ve slowly realized that I feel like I’m treading water at this point still making shorts, and that I probably AM ready to do this.  Before the end of the year, I hope to have cameras rolling on my first feature film.  I’ve got one or two more short films already in the pipeline, but after that, it’s time to take that big step.  I’m currently using my short projects as a sort of test to see what I’m capable of on a larger scale.  My currently-in-editing short film, Angel of the City, was featured on the YouTube channel I work for, Indy Mogul, for a 5-part series called The On-Set Experience, based on the idea that, in every film school/course I was involved in, they always told me the most important thing you could get when wanting to be a filmmaker is on-set experience.  I treated it as a much bigger deal than I normally do, shooting over 5 days, having a pretty big crew on set, working with a Director of Photography instead of shooting it myself, having a First Assistant Director I work well with, and going about things like getting locations the right, proper, LEGAL paperwork-filled way.  I’m very proud of the series, and what we pulled off in terms of professionalism with this project, something we will fine-tune with the last short film I’ll be shooting for a while with mostly the same crew next month.  You can find the link for that series at the top of this blog.

And so, if all goes according to plan, by the end of the year I’ll be making a feature.  If you’d like to follow along with that progress, just keeping checking out Indy Mogul, as I’m sure there will be plenty to talk about in that respect over the next few months.

If you find yourself worried about the same thing, don’t overthink it too much (which I have a tendency to do).  It can be a bad thing to jump the gun in a situation like this, no doubt about it.  But if you want to be a true filmmaker, the only thing worse than making a feature-film before you’re ready, is never making one at all.  I can say all I want about Corner Pocket Productions, which has long since disbanded, but they really swung for the fences.  And, at least for the next few months, I can’t yet say the same.  Plus, I’m still friends with some of them, so I really needed to end this on a nicer note!


Russell is available for questions and remarks in the Comments section below.

RB's News, Videos, and Tips (Weekend Reading Style) - August 17th, 2013
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