Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Stomping Ground: An Odyssey in Micro-budget Filmmaking

Recently, I started to watch the latest film by a notorious but fairly well-regarded foreign filmmaker who has been making English language films in the States. The images were stunning, clearly crafted meticulously for optimum style, mood and atmosphere. I hear that this director likes to tell stories with imagery rather than relying on dialogue. Commendable. I turned it off halfway through. Why? Because I was bored, I got it, figured out what he was trying to do and it was not compelling. I am the first to admit that I can be narrow-minded in my approach to film. Is it so bad to want to watch a story about people I care about in a situation that I’m interested in?

Whenever Avengers: Age of Ultron came out, I posted a blog where I ranted about what an empty, meaningless exercise in CGI it was. Check it out:

Is it just me? Would it be so hard to focus on story, plot and character development?

You know where this is going. In 2005, after years of studying the form -writing, production, marketing and distribution — I wrote a textbook micro-budget screenplay. In the summer of 2006, I’d assembled a cast and crew but, just hours before the first day of the shoot, my lead actor quit due to personal reasons. I rescheduled the shoot for a couple month later, the lead actor came back and, the night before the first day of shooting, he broke his foot, then moved to L.A. I recast the whole film, scrambled to replace the original crew and it just never came together. 

All along, a producer in L.A. had been asking me to option the screenplay. I optioned it to a Philly company, it never really progressed, the producer in L.A. asked about optioning it again and the third time was the charm. I sold the rights to the screenplay for two years and was hired to re-write it for six months. Near the end of the two year option, the producer stopped responding to calls and e-mails. It turns out that, if neither party takes action at the end of an option, the producer can sometimes retain the rights for free. With about two weeks to spare and the help of a generous volunteer lawyer, I retained the rights to my screenplay. That was in January 2011.

On July 1, 2013, I met with a bright, daring, ambitious producer and we decided to go ahead with my idea that Stomping Ground could be shot in two days. On September 1, 2013, we wrapped the two day shoot. 

Directing Stomping Ground, 8/31/13

After two and a half draining, demanding, arduous years of post-production, Stomping Ground, was completed in January 2016 and premiered in May at the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival.

From the start, I knew the film was going to be divisive, mostly because of the way I planned to shoot it and partly because of the story. I wanted to test a theory that a bad screenplay produced well would probably result in a bad film but that a good screenplay produced badly might still yield a good film. I wanted to strip everything away so that all I was left with was a good story and good acting. 

Stomping Ground is a messy film. I always knew it would be. I wanted it to be. The color correction never fully came together. My editor worked wonders with the footage we gave him and it is as choppy and hand-held as I expected it to be. I called it a punk rock production because, like the music, it was about energy, heart and soul rather than technical proficiency.

I shot the film in 24 hours in part because I knew I would not be able to afford the cast and crew for much longer and I also thought it might make for good P.R. If I had it to do over again, I would have shot it in 36 hours.

Stomping Ground has been submitted to quite a few film festivals and has not been accepted by that many. Bottom-line, I have sat in screenings with filmmakers, film lovers and film students who cannot see past the technical flaws. I have seen it with “civilians,” regular folks who just want to sit down to watch a movie and I have heard them gasp, laugh, exclaim “Oh my God!” and I have seen them on the edge of their seats. 

As a student of low-budget indie filmmaking for thirty years, give or take, I saw early films by The Coen Brothers, Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee then studied them inside out, from the writing phase to shooting to post-production to festival runs, marketing and distribution. I wrote about and reviewed indie films for a website dedicated to the form. In those days, I saw a lot of really bad films that had never gotten picked up for distribution, many of them justifiably so. In some cases, I saw great films that I championed and even helped to get distribution. 

I knew what I was getting into when I started to make Stomping Ground. I knew that it might be one of those films that never got distribution — either because it was so bad or because there was nobody to champion it. I always thought Stomping Ground would find an audience. It has not, yet.

Stomping Ground was released on Amazon today. 

Did I achieve the cinematic acclaim and notoriety I so desperately craved? Not yet. Will I ever? Not counting on it. Will I recoup my investment? Good one!

Am I disappointed? Sure. Defeated? Not exactly. I actually see the Amazon release as a fresh opportunity to get the film out there and part of me just wishes that I had completely sidestepped the festival submission route in the first place. Will there be people who hate the film if they get it on Amazon? Will I get lots of negative reviews? Probably but that is the risk of trying to make art. 

One of the biggest surprises over the course of this whole experience has been the number of close friends and associates who seem to think I cannot handle negative criticism. So many people have asked to see the film, gotten it and never offered me any feedback, as if it simply never happened. I know that they probably do not want to hurt my feelings and I get it but sometimes no response is worse than a negative response. 

If a handful of people see it, like it and write a positive review, I will feel like I have successfully accomplished what I set out to do from the beginning, not pander to conventions, not accommodate for a lack of story by covering it up with state of the art graphic effects but delivering a good, rich, important story performed well by my talented cast. 

Who knows who might see it? I’m optimistic. 

You can see Stomping Ground on Amazon now. If you like it and have something nice to say, I'd appreciate a positive review. 

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