My series of post on the subject of Found Footage films continues today. I would like to say that there is good and bad in ever genre of film making. Not since the days of the slasher film has there been a genre that has attracted so many low budget film makers. One could compare the found footage craze to that of the gold rush. Films have been shoot for less than fifty thousand dollars and gone on to make over one hundred million dollars. Those films are the Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. The problem with this craze has been that far too many film makers have been copying rather than innovating. Films like End of Watch and Chronicle have taken the genre in new directions, but they are the exception and not the rule.
The interview that I am going to present to you today is with AJ Forehand. She produced a great short film that I really thought stood out from the crowd.
This is my interview with AJ Forehand. The subject is her Film Jessie’s Girl.
Q) I wanted to do a series of interviews on the subject of found footage style films. As we all know that during the past few years found footage has become a genre all its own. In preparation for this series of post and most likely an ebook to follow on the subject I have watch more than two hundred found footage films during this past year. Your movie Jessie’s Girl was one of the few that stood out regardless of budget. The first question I have to ask for those who have not seen it yet is what is the film about?
A) Jessie's Girl is about a camera. In the beginning of the film, a man named Allan gets a video camera from his friend (he gets it for the purpose of filming his son's birthday party). He immediately begins filming Butterfly from afar, a girl he's never met. He eventually builds up the courage to abduct her. She remains in the back of his van, going through various moments of torture and assault. In the end, after hours of being abused, Butterfly is tied up in the back of Allan's van awaiting her fate. When the true test of courage (and sadism) arrives, Allan underestimates Butterfly, and the camera is the only witness.
Q) I have argued for a while that the genre will kill itself if it does not explore other areas that horror. Your film is a thriller. Was this a concussion choice or was this where the story took you?
A) That's a good question. In all honesty, the film evolved into what it became without any conscious choice of whether it would be a thriller or a horror film. I knew I wanted a strong female character and a large brute of a guy. I had never worked with these actors before and I wasn't sure how it would all come together in the editing booth, so as the script developed, I just went with it. I wanted to make my audience uncomfortable. By the way, did it have that affect on you?
Jessie's Girl from Amanda Forehand on Vimeo.
Q) It has been said that cinema is a visual medium. It is an exercise in the art of showing rather than telling. You film stood out from many others because you told a story that was understandable even without the dialogue or sound. I watched it once with sound and then I watched it again on mute. The visual story telling in Jessie’s Girl is excellent. You achieved that and I want to know about the editing choices. Was it totally scripted this way or did it all come together in the editing? I should also ask who did the editing?
A) I edited the film. I love editing and every aspect of it. However, with Jessie's Girl, the script was carefully adhered to. I did not cut any of the dialogue. I work-shopped this script with my film production professor who was trained and educated at USC. From the day I met him, he beat it into my head that films are storytelling with pictures not words. He would say "This is too much dialogue; try to convey the same idea without words." Also, Allan's situation was not one that could be presented through too much dialogue, as it would have been him talking to his self, and though he clearly has some issues, I certainly was not trying to present him as irrational or insane. The scene with Allan's wife was added later and it was to create some inference of a motive, but I'm not sure it did that. It was filmed (weeks later) because in a screening of dailies, my fellow filmmakers said they couldn't see why Allan was doing this and without dialogue, motive was a bit difficult to create.
Q) If I do not ask the camera question, then I will get a dozen emails asking me why I did not. So what did you shoot the film with and looking back on it was it the right camera or cameras for the job?
A) First, let me make it clear that I wish we had better equipment, but most filmmakers say that. I was still a film student so my resources were more limited. That being said, the film took place in the 90's and I wanted a cheap-camera look. The reason the film was set in the 90s was because it was more practical to gather props that were 20 or less years old (cars, clothes, furniture, TV's, etc..). I knew I didn't want to make present-day film because I wanted the challenge of a period piece, even if the period was not so long ago. We did our best to stick to it, but there are flaws. The camera was a Panasonic AG-HMC150 AVCCAM. Also, though it appears that Allan is holding the camera in many shots, he never held it once. My DP was in the first scene and plays the character that gives Allen the camera. He's in every single scene, even when Allan steps up in the van with the camera. I really feel that the artifice of film is where the real art is. I love the efforts and allusions that create a world that doesn't exist.
Q) The two most over looked areas of the film making process by those who are just starting out are lighting and sound. In found footage films this usually becomes a nightmare. The lighting was well done in the case of your film and the sound quality was good. How much time did you spend on these two areas before shooting?
A) We spent a lot of time on sound. In my opinion, sound really divides one film from the next, and I wanted to make sure it was organic. We used a boom mic and a Sony zoom. It was very challenging to create certain sounds of the film, so many of them were done in post. The radio music is all added. No music was playing in the van. The radio DJ came in and recorded his lines- all in one take! There are points where the van sounds like it's running but it's not. The death of Allan (which is brutal if you've heard it) was created with various vegetables and meats. We recorded at the location about a month later. We beat the hell out of some melons with a hammer and a rock. We used a large piece of beef with a bone in the middle and sawed that for the sound of Butterfly sawing Allan's head off. We broke up some carrots and celery for the sound of broken bones. When mixed just right, we had a nice brutal killing. :)
As for the lighting, I'm a big fan of practicals. We studied the language created by cinematic lighting. We understood rim lighting, key lighting, etc. The challenge was to get all that into the set of a found footage piece. For example, in the van when Allan is torturing Butterfly, we had to run a power converter in order to use cinema grade lighting. It had a hum so loud, we had to use pillows to insulate between it and the van. We had a large soft light box, but it was never appropriate for the scene. Overall, the lighting was about half and half between practicals and the film making standard. I think the practical lighting is more organic- especially for a found footage piece.
Q) You also managed to do something that I thought was very clever. You took the camera out of the actor’s hands in many of the scenes. Far too many of these films weld the camera to one actor and from that point on it is literally until death do they part. You allowed your camera in many scenes to remain stationary?
A) We actually discussed this point before filming. We wanted the camera to be the character the audience followed, not Allan. We don't see Allan all the time. For example, during the son's party, his aunt actually has the camera for a few minutes. I felt that the audience is forced to consider who Allan is, who his family is, even if it lacks his perspective. The camera can bring two polar opposite moments right up next to each other and as a viewer, we're forced to consider it.
Q) We all have our favorite film makers. Readers of this blog know that I am a Hitchcock and
Takashi Miike fan. Hitchcock because of his amazing attention to detail and his constant focus on always putting the audience first. Takashi because of his amazing ability to direct films in every possible genre, from action, to horror, to western to musical. Also, he shows his love of film making by actually directing on average three feature films a year for the last decade. Who are your film making heroes and why?
A) Wow, I'll TRY to keep this short. My film making influences and heroes cover a large spectrum of genres. I am first and foremost a lover of film watching, which led to a love of filmmaking. It's always been clear to me which one came first. For this reason, I can not isolate any one film maker that influences me as a film maker, I can only name the ones who I have watched so much that I am sure I can not deny their affect on my own work. From Stanley Kubrick to Paul Anderson, and Wes Anderson, Rod Serling and Quinton Tarantino or JJ Abrams... I have watched their films dozens and dozens of times. More than I care to admit. Though these names represent the authors of work that I will always be inspired by, I know great films only happen when the perfect combination of film maker, writer, director, actors, editors, etc. get it right. There's no doubt that a poor delivery will make even the most influential director's work cringe-worthy. There are too many greats to name just a few. I could go on forever...
Q) How did you learn the craft of film making and when did you decide that you wanted to be one?
A) My path to film making is unique. I learned the craft of film making from my first film production professor, David Burkman. I was studying film studies (mostly theoretical stuff) and I was forced to take production class for the major. I learned every aspect of filmmaking in a short semester and realized a lifetime wouldn't teach me everything. So I did the rational thing, and took another class, and another class, and so on. My husband fell in love with using the camera and has become and avid collector and loves shooting EVERYTHING from home movies to short films. He's always coming up with new ideas. I, however, have really gravitated to the pre and postproduction side of things. I still love to write and I love to edit, but the main photography part of filmmaking is really stressful for me. He really took to it like a fish in water. Now my eight-year-old son has a camera and makes his own short movies. He even has costumes and production value (very little though). It's a family affair at this point. No interest in making money- we just love beautiful images that convey an idea or story.
Q) I suppose that I should return to the subject of found footage films. What do you think that this genre has to offer in the future?
A) I think the found footage film genre's days are numbered, as you might have already theorized. I think it's a new unique way to tell a story. It offers a limited, and sometimes privileged, POV to the viewer. This is turn frees the filmmaker up to tell as little or as much of the story as they wish. The issue I see with it is the limit. The moment people understand something to be found footage; they know many of their questions won't be answered. They know, inevitably, they'll be unable to see a particular moment, and instead they are forced to build the scene inside their own imagination. Though I think it's a genre that commands respect and recognition. I think it may be equalized to the value of a slasher B film. On the other hand, because a found footage film can parallel technological advances in cameras, camera phones, etc. perhaps this is only the beginning. I guess we shall see.
Q) Are you working on any projects? Do you plan on shooting a feature someday?
A) I am always working on something. A writer writes. A filmmaker makes films. I have written several pieces, three of which are features (a sci fi, a drama/ thriller, and a comedy). Just last night my husband and I had a great idea for a sci-fi romance. We live, breathe, dream, and speak films. It's who we are.
Thanks again for taking the time to do this interview. Good luck with all of your future projects.