Monday, January 11, 2010

Indie Filmmaker Interview-Zoje Stage

Zoje, tell us about your background in filmmaking and screenwriting.

I am primarily a self-taught writer and filmmaker - although I did take a screenwriting class and a couple of Super-8 filmmaking classes at Pittsburgh Filmmakers in the late 80's. I knew as a teenager that I wanted to be a filmmaker - it was an art form that seemed to encompass all of my creative interests. However, my path has been very circuitous, which has allowed me to pick up a diverse set of skills along the way. I've been a very disciplined writer for a long time, and my method and style has evolved in a very intuitive way. Also, I have a deep background in theatre. Theatre was accessible in a way that filmmaking opportunities often weren't (especially before digital video became ubiquitous) - so via theatre I had the chance to work in a collaborative environment, get my writing up on its feet, and experience the art of "live production" both behind the scenes and on stage. (The one area where I am trained is as an actor.) All of these things have contributed to my ability to be an effective storyteller as a filmmaker. Once I got my own DV equipment I had a chance to experiment and refine my skills, and learning to edit was a vital step in understanding the complete process of filmmaking = preproduction (writing), production (directing), post-production (editing).

What's it like trying to attach creatives to a script in production?

I am glad this is not my main responsibility! But seriously, this is where an experienced producer can make a big difference. I'm in the process of getting my award-winning script "The Machine Who Loved" into production, and after more than a year of false starts former-Rochesterian Richard Bosner has come on board as producer. Rick lives and works in California and is very experienced . I've said for a long time that the key person on any set is the Production Manager, because that's the person who knows everything about the logistics of getting a film made, and that's Rick's background - and in the last two years he's produced two other feature films. He has developed relationships with people in many different areas of the business and we're drawing on his contacts to attract our initial key people. A project like this builds incrementally, and given the enthusiasm that people have shown for the script we anticipate being able to put together a great, professional crew and cast. Getting people attached, especially to a low-budget film, is a matter of having a project that people get excited about and believe in - and this script has dynamic roles for actors so, in addition to Rick's contacts, we know we'll be able to attract great talent.

What's your take on the filmmaking community here in Rochester?

On the one hand it seems obvious that Rochester has a very active indie filmmaking community, since it is the home of Eastman Kodak. But on the other hand, when non-artists ask me what the filmmaking community here is like they seem shocked when I say that it is thriving - so obviously there is not great awareness about what's going on. Not to kiss your ass or anything, but I think to have a blog like this affiliated with the Little Theatre is a great idea, because the people here who love and support independent film might not be aware that there are a ton of filmmakers here, dashing around with their cameras, cooped up in their rooms editing, and screening their stuff around the country - and locally at Emerging Filmmakers and other fests. To a lot of people, a "film" is a multi-million dollar extravaganza - but long before any filmmaker is allowed to helm something with that big of a budget, she makes what she can with almost no money, honing her skills until she gets a bigger opportunity. There are a lot of people here working toward that bigger opportunity.

What is it like having a screenplay staged compared to what it would be like watching a film?

After winning the 2009 Screenplay Live! screenwriting competition, I had the opportunity to direct my script "The Machine Who Loved" as a staged reading for the High Falls Films Festival (now the 360/365 George Eastman House Film Festival). The short answer to your question is a staged reading bears absolutely no resemblance to a film. I was well aware of this while I was directing the reading, and my singular goal was to keep the audience engaged: in a film, you are surrounded by dynamic moving images; at a reading, you see actors sitting on a stage, reading from a script for ninety minutes. And all the descriptive stuff - what should be imagery - is read aloud by a narrator. It's a pretty boring proposition. As part of my work with the actors I continually found myself explaining how their intention might be rendered on film in one simple close-up, whereas on the stage you need to create something broader that a live audience can see, while still trying to maintain realism and naturalism. It was a really great experience getting the script on its feet, and the audience enjoyed it - it's a chance for them to appreciate a movie's unheralded origins: the screenplay. But ultimately, a screenplay fulfills its purpose only when it becomes a film.

What's the most difficult part of being an indie filmmaker? The most rewarding?

Many years ago I spent a couple of months in Los Angeles and when people found out I wanted to be an independent filmmaker they looked at me with pity and asked "Why?" Their idea of success in filmmaking had everything to do with money and power. My only vision for success is as an independent filmmaker, because at heart I am a person who thinks too much, dreams too much, feels too much, and likes to make stuff. I think it's fine that there's an avenue of cinema that's just about entertainment, but the body of work I hope to make has more to say.

At some level, the difference between a studio film and an independent film begins to blur, because the films are seeking the same exposure and distribution opportunities. Let's face it, whether you make a feature for $1 million or $100 million, your goal is for people to see it. Things get difficult for someone shopping around an indie project when their work is perceived as being not commercial enough - for whatever reasons. The real challenge is to get the exposure opportunities, because I fervently believe that humans are moved by things in a similar way - whether they are laughing, crying, hiding in fright, or cheering on a protagonist. I think smaller budget films tend to actually be better at connecting human beings with other human beings, precisely because there are fewer whistles-and-bells. But in a world where big studio films can make $200 million dollars, people don't appreciate that the profit margin for a smaller film can be just as great. So in part, being an independent filmmaker is a battle of perceptions. I think the ultimate reward is being able to say "I did it my way" - because of course artistically, I'm not functioning as part of a corporate committee.

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