RYAN DACKO: THE ANTARCTICA AUTEUR

There have been many stories of young lovers from different worlds trying to overcome societal feuds in order to become as one. In creating And I Lived, what were the main challenges of taking this very familiar theme and trying to keep it fresh and relevant? ^ In some ways, the familiar theme helped-especially during production and with no budget for locations, actors, permits and you depend on so many people to give you a hand and lend their help. In describing the film to owners of locations, actors, police officers, etc. when you say “the movie is kind of like a modern day “Romeo and Juliet” or “West Side Story”, nine out of 10 are familiar with the storyline and become comfortable with the material. This greatly helps in getting others to assist in the filmmaking, because people are more likely to help you out if they are familiar with what is going on and agree with the concept of the film. I’m sure if we approached a business with a “Terminator” storyline – a cyborg from the future travels to the past to kill the mother of a future leader – we would have gotten more doors closed than opened for us because it might have scared them (but James Cameron had a few million to make “The Terminator,” and that will open doors faster than anything). From the start, the simple familiar theme initially helps out.

However, like Robert De Niro said in “Heat,” “There is a flip-side to that coin” because no one wants to watch a rehashed version of a storyline which has already been done a thousand and one times. So, during the screenwriting and storyboarding phase, I had to come up with devices that would allow the movie to stand out on its own. I decided “And I Lived” would rely on its visuals to tell the story instead of heavy dialogue. So to show the division in the school, I had everyone who is on the upper-class side wear white, and those from the working class where black. All the extras were instructed to where either white or black and each of the main actors were given wardrobes instructions as to what side of the school they belonged to. So when you stand back and look at the wide shots, you can see a visual divide in the school. And the teachers were told to wear grey, to show that they are in the middle. So as the film progresses, you can see a character, who starts out in all black, start to wear traces of grey and then traces of white – visually showing his longing to be part of the other side of the school – all of this can be sensed without the need for dialogue to reinforce it.

Other devices that were also utilized to keep the theme fresh were the film’s soundtrack, made up from bands from all over the world, and the use of muscle cars and import race cars.

“And I Lived” contains (by indie film standards) a high level of automobile stunt work. What were the main difficulties in getting this auto ballet on film and making it look as professional and compelling as any big-budget car chase flick? ^ Chris Pierson (the producer on “And I Lived”) and I were always huge fans of the car chase film from the late 60’s/early 70’s. “Mad Max,” “Vanishing Point,” and “Two-Lane Blacktop” were some of our favorites. From the start of pre-production we agreed that one of the main characters of the film would be the 1968 Dodge Charger, which is a popular muscle car featured in many significant car chase movies over the last 37 years. It first appeared in “Bullit” (1968) when it went up against Steve McQueen on the streets of San Francisco, and filmmakers have not stopped using it since. So, right from the starting blocks, we wanted to import some cinematic greatness into the film and by featuring the Dodge Charger, we would do just that. (Kind of like Ed Wood using Bela Lugosi to up the production value of his low budget films – the Dodge Charger would be our “Bela”)
Now, when making a no-budget film, our main over-all goal was to get to a film festival (this is where we could show others that we could make a film, which would lead to financing for the next). That was the plan. If you ever go to some of the big film festivals and you have never made a feature film, it can be very intimidating. You will see hundreds and hundreds of films that have competed with thousands of others for a spot on the play-list. So what we wanted to do was to do something that absolutely no other independent film on a limited budget would touch – a car chase. In our minds, that would give us the edge and catch a judge’s eye, giving us better chances at getting into a film festival.

However, the difficulty was amplified in a major way. We had access to $25,000 of money that we (Chris and I) saved up over our last year in the military and the one year working before production. $10,000 of that would be going to film, developing, and camera equipment. We had one camera and two talented stunt drivers, Scott Wilson and Scott Moriarity from Rochester. Also, the two Scotts and Chris were very good mechanics and worked on cars all the time, so they could keep the cars in running condition throughout the production. From the start it would be difficult – but still possible.

Filming the car chase scenes of the movie was like shooting an entirely separate film, so we divided up the shooting schedule into two halves, the scenes with the actors and the scenes with the cars. The two greatest difficulties in filming the car sequences would be shooting them with only one camera and only having access to three vehicles (one Charger, One GMC, and a Ford Taurus). In Hollywood, the car chase scenes use multiple cameras and multiple versions of the same car – so there is always a back-up plan. If there is a mistake and Camera A jammed up, then Camera B got the shot. Or if the stunt driver mistakenly wrecks the car, just use the back-up car, while the other one is being repaired. We didn’t have those luxuries, so I had to come up with a shooting schedule and shot selection that would give our final product the illusion that we were shooting big budget Hollywood style.

In my research on car chase scenes in the movies, I came up with four basic shots that are used to make up all scenes: Exterior running shots (driving at top speeds while filming along side), Static shots (the cars fly by the camera), Interior shots (the actors driving the cars), and Stunt shots (crashes, wrecks, etc.). The stunts would be done last, so I focused on getting the first three elements before we would wreck any vehicles. In an ideal situation, we could have one camera set up inside the stunt car, and another set up on the ground outside, and another set up on a camera car. Once you do one or two passes with the car, you have gotten all three elements and you move on the next set-up.

But we would have to film all of these separately, since we were only using one camera. What helped here were the storyboards, of which I drew around 1,500 individual drawings of each camera placement in the film. When it came time to shoot the car chases scenes, all I had was the camera and a clip board with the storyboards, and as we shot each of the set-ups, I would draw a line through that storyboard and move on to the next.

To make it easier, I grouped all the similar shots together. One day, we would shoot just static shots. I would have a hand-held radio, and drive up the street, jump out of my car and sit on the side of the road. I would call “action” over the radio and the stunt driver, who would be in the movie car, parked a ways back would hit the gas and fly right by the lens. We would drive all over the two cities in which we filmed (Syracuse and Rochester) and get similar shots. Then the next day, we would go back to the same locations, only this time I would hang outside of a camera car (the GMC which would later be wrecked in the film) and film the exterior running shots.

Then, on the next day, we would come back with the actors and film the interior car shots with them driving. I would be in the back seat, and shoot the actors driving the car around the same locations which we already filmed with the stunt drivers in the previous days. Ultimately, you are left with a series of shots in multiple locations and from multiple camera angels – all obtained with only one camera. We were lucky to have had great weather during that summer, because when edited together, many of the shots look like they were taken on the same day at the same time.

To solve the problem of only having three cars, but needing five, some of them would have to pull double-duty. There was only one Charger, so there wouldn’t be any room for 50 foot “Dukes of Hazzard”-type airborne jumps (I’m sorry to say). We just didn’t have enough in the budget to fix the Charger if an axle broke or the shocks went out. However, if there was an accident, the Charger would have to be repaired right away so the continuity would be kept in the scene because we shot our takes out of order. This caused the filming to be delayed more than once. We also needed a camera car, in order to allow me to film the cars at high speeds while holding the camera just off the asphalt. For that we used a GMC Jimmy, which we cut a hole in the roof and took out the back windows. From there, I could be harnessed inside and hang out of the vehicle while shooting on the highways or side streets. Later after all the shots were done, our camera car would be done up to look like a mall security vehicle and meet its maker in the final car chase scene of the film. The other car, a Ford Taurus, was filmed in one scene in its original color (red) and then we painted it white and used it as a second vehicle in another scene. This gave the illusion that we had access to more vehicles, but really it was just painted and reused.

And of course, the other classic limitation which I believe every filmmaker has faced at one time or another was: NOT ENOUGH FILM! It’s a scary thought, to get everyone on set, all the elements in place, and only have 200 feet of film left, but it happens, especially when you are shooting a huge number of set-ups in order to make a fast paced car chase scene. To get around this, we would only do one rehearsal, and then film one take – that was it. This helped us conserve film on the easier shots so when we got to the important stunt work, more film is needed because sometimes the stunts don’t go as planned or a vehicle doesn’t flip when you want it to—an extra number of takes are needed, so whatever extra film you have is critical.

What is the state of independent filmmaking in upstate New York? Were you able to find a satisfactory level of professional support (both in front of the camera and behind it)? And is this a region which is supportive of independent filmmakers? ^ Upstate New York is like a hidden secret with serious independent filmmakers. So far the filmmaking scene is non-existent and that is a good thing for anyone on a limited budget. Not only are the locations diverse (forests, beaches, hills, flat lands) but also the idea of a movie being filmed is something new and fresh. If you go to Los Angeles or New York City, there are always movies being shot (and many are being shot with millions of dollars) so the locals are used to seeing a movie set, and in many cases they expect to be compensated if you want to use their help or locations. If you go down there to film a feature length film for $25,000, the roadblocks are a mile high. In Upstate New York it is the exact opposite.

There were so many people that stepped out to help us make this film because there was a general excitement about making a movie. Many folks up here have a sense of pride in their city or town and welcome filmmakers. For example, I approached owner of a liquor store in Rochester and asked if we could film in the back of his store for an hour. Since we didn’t have any money for paying locations, I offered a ‘special thanks’ credit in the film. Not only did he happily give us permission, but he shut off the coolers in the back so the noise wasn’t picked up by our microphones. What a blessing! You just won’t find help like that down in the big cities. Of course, you will run in to the usual roadblocks – not everyone is happy to see you shooting on their front steps, but in upstate New York, your chances of securing great locations on a shoe-string budget greatly increase.

You probably wouldn’t believe it but there are a huge number of professionals and up-and-coming professionals that work up here. From actors, to cinematographers, to movie equipment rental houses, they can all be found up here. You just have to film here to find out how much easier it is, and how much support you will get in the making of a movie. Your movie will also be better looking because these cities and towns are a number of years older than the ones out west, and age gives a location character.

The police and city officials are also very welcoming when filming. Especially in Syracuse, where we filmed half of “And I Lived.” There are parts of that city (alley ways, sidestreets, etc.) that look exactly like Manhattan, only there are no filming permits required. The police only required us to let them know where we were filming and when, so there would be no surprises. I kept thinking how much money an independent production would save if, instead of shooting entirely in New York City, just film your wide establishing shots down there, then come up here to Syracuse and film on the side streets, just don’t pan up. It would edit together flawlessly.

Where has “And I Lived” been screened, to date? What has the reaction been from festival programmers? And have you attempted to reach film and/or DVD distributors about acquiring your title? ^ We had test screenings of the film back in the spring of 2003 at the Rochester Institute of Technology and also at Syracuse University. We came out with an 89.8% approval rating from the questionnaire forms collected after each showing. Unfortunately, the film festival circuit wasn’t as accepting of the movie. We were denied acceptance to Seattle, and a few others. Most disappointing was getting denied by the Syracuse International Film and Video Festival. I believe the focus of the major film festivals shifted to the million dollar “independent” films coming out of Hollywood, or the increasing number of international submissions every year. A $25,000 film just can’t compete with a $1.5 million dollar one. As for the reaction from festival programmers, I couldn’t tell you, because you never do get a personal response from a festival after you are denied acceptance.

I feel “And I Lived” is most enjoyed if you know the story behind it and the three years it took to make it after the screenplay was written. It truly is independent filmmaking at its most basic form, from living out of your office, to converting your bathroom into a make-shift darkroom by taping up the edges of the door – you don’t get much more independent than that. So what I did was write a book on the making of “And I Lived,” and the passion behind the filmmaking process. I initially started to write it to help inspire me to continue on with my career in film, so I revisited all the filmmakers who have traveled a similar road. From James Cameron and Frank Darabont to Peter Jackson and Edward D. Wood, Jr. – all were filmmakers with no film school under their belt, and no experience but they pushed on a continued to make movies, even though they started out in ultra-low budget films. They all had one thing in common in that they never gave up. And that is what the book is about – continuing to make movies no matter what gets in your way. It’s titled: “I Guess The World Could Always Use Another Ed Wood” and excerpts can be found at my website www.ascension3.com.

Currently, some publishing agents are reviewing the book. “And I Lived” is under review for the B-Movie Film Festival being held in Syracuse, NY which is like heaven to the world of independent filmmaking. I was so excited to see a venue for true independent filmmakers, and a possibility of “And I Lived” getting its first festival outing. I hope to screen the movie there and also introduce the book to anyone who is interested in making movies on a realistic level.

What are the new projects that you are working on? ^ The next movie is titled “Dead Heaven,” and we are looking to film it in Syracuse this fall. The movie is about a fallen angel who is mistaken as a Vampire while he tries to earn his way back into Heaven. The production was put on hold after initial financing fell through last year even though we had all the locations secured and ready to go. I have a great group of guys working with me, and we are very positive about the movie. The Dodge Charger is back too, only this time the bad guy drives it. We look for the B-movie Film Festival in Syracuse to be a spring board to finally get the ball rolling again and continue the search for investors. Our goal is to premiere the finished product next year at the same festival.

On the writing side, I have two other screenplays in the works, trying to find time to work on them is more difficult now that we are pushing “Dead Heaven” once again. Also I just completed the first edition of “The DVD Film School,” which is included with the “And I Lived” book. In a nutshell, it describes in great detail how you can learn filmmaking from actual professionals in the industry by watching 50 different DVD commentaries and behind-the-scenes features. By taking notes and cross referencing them with a few books out on the market, you basically can put yourself through your own film school at your own pace for just a one-month $17 membership to Netflix – it sure beats $12,500 for one semester of the New York Film Academy. What follows is the advice from Robert Rodriguez: “now take the money you would have spent on film school and then make a movie with it.”

Would you recommend that other aspiring filmmakers follow your lead and go to Antarctica in order to write their screenplays? ^ I would highly recommend it if you have the means. It truly is a beautiful place and time literally stands still – but to an aspiring filmmaker, don’t spend any money to find the time to write, you can make the time. I was fortunate enough to find myself with extra hours after work on an icebreaker, and I had ideas I wanted to write. However, even in Antarctica, there were still distractions – TV, video games, etc. The first step to getting advancements made in writing is to turn off the TV or X-Box – you would be amazed at how much you can get done with all the extra time. And best of all, it doesn’t cost anything to turn the power button to off and pick up a pen.




Posted on March 21, 2005 in Interviews by
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