FILMMAKING OUTSIDE THE BOX: HOW TWO FILMMAKERS MADE A DIGITAL FEATURE FOR $300

[ How did you two meet and what are your respective backgrounds? ] ^ [ James Portolese: ] We met in April of 1998 when I was directing my first feature ‘the decade’ and my d.p. was going to be out of town for one day. I went through all of the resumes that I had received and there was a letter from a girl named Shelli Merrill and she said that she was an assistant cameraman. I called her and asked if she knew anyone who could operate for a day. She recommended Rene and we totally clicked on that Saturday. He was in touch with what we were shooting, he got along with the cast and we found ourselves finishing each other’s sentences. I knew that this was the person I needed to shoot the rest of the film. The sad thing was that I had to fire my original D.P. (who, like everyone else, was working for free) but I knew I was making the right decision. We formed Coyote Arm Films shortly after. As it turns out, we actually live 1 block away from each other in Beachwood Canyon. Rene wound up editing and co-producing the film with me as well. ^ [ Rene Besson: ] Two years ago, I was couch surfing looking for any kind of production work when my friend Drama (yes that name is on her license) asked me to shoot her student thesis film on DV. Her friend Shelli then recommended me to James to cover for one day as an operator on our first feature “the decade”. James and I hit it off from that moment. Along with understanding my vocabulary, which is basically random film references for everything that occurs around me, we saw that our individual strengths complimented each other’s work. I don’t want to sound like I’m waxing his car, but he’s a pretty kick ass writer-producer-director puppy dogs and ice cream kind of guy. As for me, I’m a hack. It’s a good partnership. ^ [ JP: ] In addition to running our own independent company, I work as a director of development at Signature Films. We recently finished a film called ‘The Body’ with Antonio Banderas and Derek Jacobi and we are working on a film called ‘D’Artagnan’ with Tim Roth, Stephen Rea, Catherine Denueve and Nick Moran. I’ve been in development for the past 3 1/2 years. Prior to that I worked as a production coordinator and a 2nd A.D always kicking around scripts and story ideas on the side. ^ [ RB: ] I work on day to day operations for our production company, as well as our post production facility, Mondrado Filmworks. I have shot, directed, and edited a couple of music videos for DJ Kool Aid as well as spots for Skechers. I previously worked as an assistant in the development department of a major studio, an assistant editor, and as a camera operator.
[ How did you come up with the idea for 'boxes'? What were your influences? ] ^ [ RB: ] I had always toyed with the idea of making a stream of consciousness type film: a completely honest picture. One where no matter what you hear in the mind of our main character, you could relate to it. Behind the little lies that we tell each other each day is what we really feel. When our second picture (which will remain nameless) faded because of creative differences (or lack of creativity on the 3rd party’s part), we really felt like the walls that surrounded us at our respective day jobs were trapping us. I started to see that life was picking me before I had the chance to choose. I started to see the boxes that were around me everyday, that I felt comfortable and safe with- without questioning why they were there in the first place. But it was a feeling that had no articulation until October 15th when we found out that we were not alone… ^ [ JP: ] At the time, Rene and I were both working in tiny 3 x 3 x 3 boxes that were our cubicles. We knew we working in boxes, but we didn’t realize how trapped we were until we saw ‘Fight Club’ on October 15, 16 and 17th of last year. After that film, we had a new outlook on life and we knew that we needed to tell this story. The script basically wrote itself from that point. For me the influences in writing came from of course ‘Fight Club’, I wanted the dryness and subtleties of ‘Heat” the despair of ‘Se7en’ and for the dialogue to flow like ‘Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead’ and ‘Homicide.’ Plot points in the script were never intentional. No Job Crunch Girl’s plight did happen around minute 31 by pure accident and Eager Office Girl’s flat line around minute 60 … same thing. We simply want to stay away from fluff and rules as much as possible. We wanted to buck the rules you see in so many screenwriting books on so many shelves in so many quaint stores in pleasant zip codes.
[ The acting really stands out for such a low-budget film. How did you go about casting? ] ^ [ JP: ] Thanks. The script was finished on Oct 22nd and I made one polish in the middle of November which involved the arc of Eager Office Girl. We put a casting notice in Backstage West with a brief description of the film we wanted to make and in searching for these actors found out that we were not alone. The actors submitting really wanted to be a part of what we were trying to say. The actor who got the part of Wren, Jimmy Vollman, sent in his head shot with a yellow post it note that said: ‘Have my own headset.’ Based on that alone, we had him come in and he was Wren from the very first moment.. After the first audition, we invited our call backs to Rene’s courtyard and we sat down with them and told them our story and we wanted to hear about the boxes in their lives. It was was a very relaxed setting and based on our conversations, we offered the parts on the spot. Greta Hill, who played Eden Salenger in the film actually wept when we told her the news. It was nice making a girl cry and have her actually be happy and not ready to rip your head off in anger. ^ [ RB: ] In the audition process, we asked the actors what life in their box was like. To our surprise 90% of them knew where we were coming from. That was the first test, then we had them describe what it was like to come out here to become an actor from wherever it was that they were from. They all had stories of working in places that they hated to pay for shit that they didn’t need to impress people that they didn’t like. They all came out here to break out of their box to choose the box that they wanted to be in. From there it was just a matter of who could bring that experience to the material. Our lead, Jimmy Vollman, called me the night before his audition to get his sides faxed to him, but for some reason the fax machine at his job wasn’t working and he had to leave. He was very worried about giving me a good read the next day when I asked him, “Hey man, do you work in a box?” He blew my eardrum out screaming “YES!!!!” in front of all his co-workers. I knew right then that I was going to like this guy.
[ You seem very passionate about the themes contained in the movie, with regard to 'living outside your box.' When did this revelation hit you? ] ^ [ JP: ] It didn’t really hit me until Rene sent me an email asking me to do a timeline of a typical Tuesday: 8am until 8am the following day and he did the same thing. We would correspond back and forth coming up with small moments to play upon. It was then that we realized how safe and compartmentalized our lives were. We were just coming off the heels of our first film and we had a strange experience trying to get our second film off the ground. We were in a different place, almost like a holding pattern until Fight Club came along. ^ [ RB: ] Life is just so easily mapped out if slow down and really look at it. We all live our lives on auto pilot so much that we can’t even see that our choices are getting narrower as we get older. Solution: lets map out our days and take notes on the common things that each day steal our youth and enthusiasm away from us. Let’s reflect them in the film and burn them down. In creating the film itself we were committing ourselves to living outside of the boxes that restrict us.
[ The dating and club scene in L.A. is very accurately portrayed, so are you a part of that scene? ] ^ [ JP: ] I’m single and have been single during a good portion of my time in L.A. There have been the occasional stalker and restraining orders, psycho chicks with messed up names and girls who really don’t work, at all. This has always vexed me. I do go out but I try to stay clear of Sunset on the weekends. We were lucky enough to get The Continental, which is a place that we like to go and play ‘find the ugly person’ because the crowd there is usually too good to be true and the food is California Cuisine, whatever the hell that means. The whole issue of caller -id being a life force in the early and ending stages of a relationship is true to life and the use of nick names as a quick reference guide is something that my friends use all the time. Another truism is never take a girl’s phone number. That is something that Wren and I have in common. If they like you, they’ll call, if not, you won’t sound like an idiot on her machine as she tries to remember the lies she told you while you were writing down her number. ^ [ RB: ] I’m from Miami, were you go out to play. In L.A., you go out to work. Who’s party is it? Will development people be there? What car do you drive? What agency are you with? Who’s that? I think he’s with Miramax. Quick, I’ll go to my car and get my script, you keep an eye on him. ^ [ JP: ] We also tend to judge parties by if it is a two car follow party or do we ride together. I only have a 2 seater so, well, you get the picture.
[ Did you really have a threesome with a Swedish chick? What is the real story? ] ^ [ JP: ] Hmmn. Well, they’re back in Stockholm now so I guess nobody will find out … I was dating a girl, Annah something and she was visiting the U.S. last summer. Rene and I were at the Garden of Eden and Annah and her two Swedish friends, who we’ve never met before come over to our booth and start drinking and flirting and as the drinks continued, a huge amount of curiosity began to swell. Annah’s hot friend was named Evalotta Freedenseehausen or that is what my impaired brain told me she was saying and their other friend was the ‘mother’ of the group. She wanted nothing to do with Rene or myself and she did not approve of all the flirting that was going on throughout the night. While we were drinking, Evalotta and Annah are yapping back and forth in their native tongue, while all I can do is wonder what the hell they’re saying. Evalotta asks if I want to take the both of them home. Rene about has a heart attack of joy, Annah can’t believe her friend just asked me that and the Swedish ‘mother’ is all but ready to go home. ^ I am a happy boy but Annah wants to leave with just me. On the way out, Evalotta asks for my address and I give it to her as she disappeared into the alley off of La Brea, not a safe place for a hot chick but she managed. The ‘mother’ disappeared too, not soon enough and Rene just smiled and said, ‘Call me when it’s over.’ Guy code, simple and concise. ^ Annah and I go back to my place and have our fun. A few hours later, Evalotta shows up pounding on my door. Annah freaks out and hides in the restroom. I open the door and she is like a caged animal (hence the lion roars on the soundtrack) Annah sneaks out of the restroom and the two girls break into a Swedish chatter that would have made you feel like Linda Blair. ^ Less than two minutes later, Swedish Mom shows up, don’t ask me how she got my address, but she storms in calling me names, calling her friends names. I couldn’t take it so I had to borrow the line from “Heat” when De Niro tells Ashley Judd to “Clean up, go home …. Clean up, go home.” And they did and I sat on the couch and played my messages and watched the deleted ending from “Apocalypse Now” wondering what in the hell just happened. Memories. ^ [ RB: ] I have never a Swedish two-fer, but I have had sisters. I’m saving that story for when we make an episode Red Shoe Diaries.
[ Are the tales from the office things that actually happened in your life? ] ^ [ JP: ] The genesis of the main characters came from a few sources. A friend of mine from college got a job right out of school in Omaha, Nebraska. He worked as an assistant accountant for a company that makes the paper that makes the cardboard boxes. You can’t get more dry than that. They don’t even make the boxes, just the paper. I started asking him about the tape or the labels anything, nope just the paper, and he is an assistant accountant … in Omaha… I asked him if I could use his back story and he was fired up. I went to high school with a girl who’s father actually invented the little plastic rings that hold your six packs together. For Eden, everyone has an Eden. A hot girl, you’re not sure exactly how she survives and she’s such a good friend and such a great person to have around, you can’t help but to love her. The idea behind the glue factory was to show the other side of business that the people who work in customer service never get a chance to see. I really wanted to play with the blandness of corporate meetings and the way people really treat each other in the work place. If you say hello to someone at 9 am, can you wait until 3 pm to acknowledge their presence again, or do you have to keep saying hello every single time you see this person you know nothing about. ^ [ RB: ] I used to have to attend these meaningless board meetings where nothing really gets said and nothing really gets done. You start looking at these people in a grouping and it can be pretty fucking scary. They start to look like these big empty heads with saggy bodies that aren’t saying or doing anything that matters in your world or anybody else’s. If you write down what they say and do and repeat them, people just would not believe it. So we did write them down and recreated them, and it seems that people DO believe it. Every one has an Eager Office Girl that’s way too perky in the morning even before her coffee, a Cubicle Boy that they are afraid about finding out too much about, a Big Six that could send your sensitivity training out the window, and a Mr. Maxell that utterly confounds you with his disconnection to the entire human race. The idea for the sequence where Wren drives home actually came from the office environment. I got on this kick of really looking at people whenever I was on my way out to go home from work. Around that time of day everyone is tired, bored, frustrated, angry, and lost with a vague sense of ambiguity. People are trying to finish those last minute projects, deal with that last crisis of the day, wrap it up and get the hell out. But I noticed that a lot of people had one look in common, the one that says “Why am I rushing to get home, what will be there waiting for me?” More boxes. So James and I really started watching people on the drive home, seeing them tucked away in their little boxes with wheels, lost in thought, regretting lost opportunities. Drive time becomes dream time, you look back you look forward, and wonder what the hell it’s all about.
[ How did you make an entire film for only $300? ] ^ [ JP: ] We basically refused to spend money. Actually, $140 of that amount went on haircuts for the two main actors. We had a connection at this stylist from a girl who wanted to play Eden. We simply couldn’t cast her in the part, so when the stylist finished on the actors, she said it would be $140 dollars, I said they were supposed to be free, the stylist added, they would’ve been free if her friend would’ve gotten the part. ^ We fed the actors, we bought dv stock and we paid for hair cuts. All of the other office locations are practical office spaces where Rene and I had access to, we shot at both of our apartments, Eden’s apartment, Goodfellas Restaurant and The Continental was fantastic. The driving sequence in the middle of the film covered from Los Feliz to Century City and back and we shot that in Jimmy’s car, doubling for mine over the course of one Saturday night. ^ People believed in the film and they gave us their energy because they were also trapped in the box. ^ [ RB: ] Coyote Arm owns all of its editing equipment, sound, steady-cam, cameras, lighting kits, special effect toys and we had DJ Kool Aid do a fantastic score. When you do everything internally it’s a great way to keep the costs down. I shot the picture and edited it simultaneously, so it saved my ass when it came to coverage. If I missed something on the day, I would just pick a shot up on the next. Plus, I had a monkey cam shooting anything he saw that he felt appropriate for the film, alternate angles, props, transition material, anything that could help the picture- and believe me, it did.
[ What kinds of cost-saving methods did you employ to deliver such a high quality film for less than the cost of a decent DVD player? ] ^ [ JP: ] A friend of mine is the post production supervisor at one of the Studios.. He always comes through with a theatre when we need to screen a project. The thing is that he has to bill a feature film every time a theatre is rented. When we showed up on the lot on May 1, 2000, a “movie” was being screened for it’s “big time” producers and director. The projectionist asked me if I was with the “movie” staff and I smiled and said yes. Before we could fill the theatre, the director and pony show cleared out, wondering why Rene and I were all smiles. We saved $1,500 just by getting the theatre charged to “movie”. ^ [ RB: ] He’s such a slick producer type, just less oily. We just lied our way onto locations, cropped out anything sensitive to those companies. Drank all of their Cokes, made plenty of script copies on their machines. The office supply cabinet really is the Toys R Us of our generation. Having the shooting take place over the span of one day meant very few costume changes to worry about. For the glue sequence, our composer let us use his downtown loft, we shot in a few stores on the fly for Wren’s daydream sequence in a certain Scandinavian furniture store and a fast food sounding personal electronics store. If you act like you’re testing their equipment (i.e. dv cameras) most clerks have no idea you’re shooting a film.
[ Can you give me a breakdown of a timeline for making the movie, when did you come up with the idea, writing the script, production, completion, first screening? ] ^ [ RB: ] This one has to go the Mental Rolodex, James. My memory was lost last year during a Wild On marathon on E! ^ [ JP: ] The official idea came to us as we were driving back from the Cinerama Dome after viewing number III of “Fight Club” on Oct 17th. I started writing on the 18th and the first draft at 105 pages was completed on October 22nd. ^ We put out the casting ad on December 1, 1999. We had our first casting session on January 27th. ^ We had a cast read through at Rene’s house on February 8, 2000 and we started shooting on February 17th with the opening shot that takes about 4 minutes of time without a single cut. ^ Shooting took place over a period of 11 days, primarily nights and weekends and we had one voice over day for Jimmy to cover all of the V.O. in the film. We wrapped on Saturday March 18th and Jimmy’s wife gave birth to a beautiful child 2 days later. Her pregnancy was another driving force to get the film finished when we did because we knew we wouldn’t have him after the birth. There is a shot towards the end of the film when he is running out of his cubicle down the hallway. While that was taking place, he heard his pager going off around the corner and he thought it was his wife saying its time to have the child. Thank God the cameras were rolling and we were able to capture that moment of concern and elation. ^ Rene cut the film until April 15th, rendering our special effects along the way, lots of DVD’s were devoured during that time. Fight Club came out of video but we would have to wait until June 6th for the DVD. ^ We laid in the graphics and the end credits on Sunday April 30. Rene and I watched the film in the dark in the editing bay and with nervous energy we knew there was nothing else to do but screen it. We had a cast and crew Premiere on the lot on May 1st.
[ What problems did you run into during production in terms of keeping the budget so low? ] ^ [ JP: ] One thing is you’re working so hard on a project you believe in but there are another 20-30 people working just as hard. You feel bad that you can’t give them more than some pizza from Papa Johns and a credit and a copy of the film when it is finished. So many of the actors were thrilled just to see their work on the screen so quickly. Many have labored on projects that never see the light of day, even a courtesy video copy. When we shot at The Continental for all of the bar scenes. We had access from 7:00 pm until 11:00 pm on a Sunday night. (they are closed on Sundays). We shot the entrance of Wren and his friends and the exit with the Swedes first so we could send the 50 or so extras home within the first hour. For all of the heavy dialogue sequences we shot upstairs in the VIP room with scattered extras so it still looked crowded … also so that people wouldn’t get anxious and start tearing up the place. ^ We managed to knock off 17 pages of the script in that 4 hour period with the bookends to the scene shot on the street long after everyone else had gone home. ^ When you know you only have the centerpiece of your film for 4 hours, creativity and being heavily story-boarded are the keys. ^ [ RB:] One of the locations that we, um, secured for the film was an office that I had been working in as a consultant. During our shoot one of my “inferior superiors” walked in on us. This is that anal retentive large type asshole guy in every office harps on and on about procedures and how they must be enforced. At first he seemed o.k. with the prospect of us shooting in the office and went as far as to state that he thought that guerilla filmmaking was cool. He even encouraged us to continue shooting. This guy then left us there went home, had a beer, fucked his wife, and did whatever it is that he does in his world. Eight hours later, he called security on us to kick us out and eventually had my contract terminated. 1/3rd of the film had been shot there: this forced us to create solutions to numerous continuity problems, that thanks to good planning, two completely different office spaces, my apartment, and the magic of editing, you will never see. The moral to this story if someone does something bad to you, write all of the stupid, contradictory and meaningless things that they have ever said to you into your movie and give them a free screener with the IFC logo on it.
[ How did the deal with The Independent Film Channel come about? ] ^ [ RB: ] Prayer, voodoo, santeria, animal sacrifice, wiccan rituals, chips, dips, chains, and whips. Oh, I guess I should be more professional, ahem, James has been the point person on that project. It’s been on the top of his action item list. Please hold while I transfer you over to his department… and make it a great day… ^ [ JP: ] We sent the film to Mark Stolaroff at Next Wave Films in Santa Monica after we had the cast and crew screening. Mark called a week later and said that he really enjoyed the film. He was surprised at how low the budget was and it took a bit to convince him that we shot it on DV instead of 16mm. We met with Mark and told him about Coyote Arm Films and how we like to do everything in house. He felt that this would be the perfect project for IFC’s DV Theatre which premieres a DV film that pushes the limits of the technology on the 3rd Wednesday of every month. ^ He sent the film to Kelly DeVine at IFC and about 3 weeks later she called and stated how much she enjoyed the film and immediately we started negotiating a deal with IFC. The film will premiere on the Independent Film Channel on Wednesday October 18th as well as on their website at IFCtv.com. ^ It was a surreal experience. We had people in the previous months telling us that they really liked the film, but Kelly’s phone call went from someone liking the film, to someone wanting to broadcast the film. ^ ‘You look for your dreams in heaven but what the hell are you supposed to do when they come true’ is a phrase I mentioned to Rene just a few days before the IFC deal. I called him immediately and he was in the lobby where we shot a few overhead shots of the office drones. It took a few beats to convince him that I was serious and that we had a deal. Wednesday July 19 was a good day. ^ IFP North contacted Kelly DeVine in regards to recommending a digital film for their IFP North – “Meet your Maker” Film Festival. She suggested “boxes” and IFP North is flying us to Minneapolis on Friday October 13th for a roundtable discussion on our film and digital cinema . Basically the cost of one of the plane tickets from L.A. to Minneapolis is roughly 3 times the cost that it took to make the film. ^ It’s the little miracles that make the trip cool.
[ So you made a profit and did not use credit cards to go bankrupt, what did you do with the money? (I mean you could make a few more features if you wanted.) ] ^ [ JP: ] Well technically, IFC still has about a month to deliver the payment so we haven’t purchased anything crazy yet, at least I haven’t, have you man? ^ [ RB: ] Ramen and .39 cent cheeseburger day are still my saving grace, but I will more than likely spend too much on Criterion DVD’s and start paying for the other projects that I had charged on credit cards. I also want to build a house and paint a self portrait. As far as making features, James and I will keep making them as they come to us. ^ [ JP: ] My guess is a nice little spree at Virgin for some overpriced DVD’s that I’ve been holding off on, I want to catch a Notre Dame football game in South Bend, (where I was born) and put the rest in the bank. Knowing that we made a film for $300, we are anxious to show what we can do with a real budget and we know that in the meantime we can still knock out a few more films for under a grand. Right now we’re still working on getting ‘boxes’ seen by as many people as possible and opening everyone’s eyes about the boxes that really are everywhere.
Get more info on the official [ "boxes" web site ] , and be sure to read [ Chris Gore's review of "boxes" ] on Film Threat.
Check out FILMTHREAT.com’s INTERVIEW ARCHIVES and read hundreds of fascinating in-depth interviews with directors, filmmakers, actors and celebrities from the world of film!




Posted on January 24, 2001 in Interviews by
Buffer


If you liked this article then you may also like the following Film Threat articles:
Popular Stories from Around the Web

Tell us what you're thinking...





Comments are governed by the Terms of Use of this Site. Click on the "Report Comment" link if you feel a comment is in violation of the Terms of Use, and the comment will be reviewed appropriately.