Wednesday, August 31, 2016

MEET THE PRODUCERS: Interview with Larry Fessenden

Let me introduce you to legendary N.Y. producer Larry Fessenden, producer of Stake Land

Larry Fessenden may not be a name you instantly recognize but the name is one that has probably been involved in some of your favorite films. At this year's Midnight Madness alone Mr. Fessenden's reach is felt, from Ron Perlman that has worked numerous times with Mr Fessenden, from The Last Winter which was written and directed by Larry as well as I Sell The Dead which Mr. Fessenden not only produced with his company Glass Eye Pix but also acted in. If you were looking really close during Brad Anderson's Vanishing on 7th St, there was Larry on the big screen again, which brings me to Stake Land. Stake Land was also produced by Glass Eye Pix. He has over forty acting credits, has produced 35 films and has numerous directing credits for feature films, shorts and documentaries. In short. Mr. Fessenden is not only a remarkable talent but is truly a tireless advocate for independent cinema.

As others are talking about recession and economic downturns you and Glass Eye Pix seems to be thriving in the film world, how do you equate your success in remaining in business and producing quality work?

We were very fortunate to have had financial support throughout the recession of Dark Sky Films. The association began with Ti West’s THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and that lead us to strike a deal to produce three more movies over the course of 18 months: BITTER FEAST, STAKE LAND and HYPOTHERMIA. And that was followed by another Ti West film, THE INNKEEPERS. So we’ve had a very good run of it with Dark Sky. In the 2000’s Glass Eye Pix invested in the careers of several filmmakers including Ti West, Graham Reznick, James McKenney, and Glenn McQuaid, as well as Kelly Reichardt and Ilya Chaiken, and the consistent model was to make films of artistic integrity at a very low budget. During more lucrative times we could get reimbursed for our efforts. It is our hope that in these lean years our model of frugality and originality will be attractive to new investors. It is important not to discount the sheer talent we have tapped in to. And I believe there is a tone throughout all the films from Glass Eye Pix that stands in marked contrast to the mainstream or even “indie” output and that is our brand.

How difficult was it to find the money to produce Stake Land? What challenges did you face that were unique to this film?

Stake Land was the most solid pitch we had for our slate of three movies with Dark Sky Films; it had the elements that looked good on paper: vampires, the post apocalyptic setting, and the director Jim Mickle had made a successful first film but still was hungry enough to go from no budget to low budget with gusto and conviction. So the film was financed easily, as part of an overall slate. The challenges were many from there. First, the script had to be reworked over several months to shape it into the feature it’s become, and then the epic scope of the story had to be fit into the budget. We determined to split the shoot into two parts, so we could experience on film the change in seasons. This was a gamble that paid off, but one that can stress a budget and crew and spook most financiers. As with all our films, we choose to emphasize post production: sound design, music, graphics, visual effects, the color correct and mix, all are an essential part of the experience we want to deliver, and again, the challenge is to strategize to get the most out of what is left of the budget after a grueling shoot. By using the same team of people in post-production on several films, we have been able to get a lot of bang for the buck.

What is something that you have learned as a producer that you wish you knew when you started out with your first feature Habit?

There is no one thing that has changed since I made HABIT in 1994. With HABIT, I established many of the principals that I still employ: A small crew (there were seven of us on HABIT), an open schedule (we shot over 45 days), and a long post-production emphasizing sound design and a rich, live score, all driven by a resourceful, single-minded auteur (which was me at the time). With HABIT, I endured a tsunami of festival and distribution rejections and so I released the film myself, compelling me to learn about marketing and exhibition. That experience taught me that there are no answers in show biz, there is only conviction. I have applied that to film after film with various degrees of success since, and it has helped several careers get started through Glass Eye Pix. Another thing I have learned since HABIT is I need my own producer to take care of the nuts and bolts of production. I may have a philosophical overview that drives the ship, but it was HABIT’s producer Dayton Taylor that got the film made, Jeff Levy-Hinte who got my subsequent films made, and now Peter Phok and Brent Kunkle have been instrumental in getting a slew of new pictures made. Collaboration in film at every level is essential.

Originally Appeared 9/17/10 Midnight Madness Blog

Tuesday, August 30, 2016


“It took all the time in the world, six books that didn’t get published, over seventeen years, before I got published. I believe in perseverance above everything. Perseverance overcomes intelligence, overcomes luck, overcomes everything. Perseverance wins.” -- Edward Bunker From The Good, The Bad, And The Bunker

Grifter. Father. Armed Robber. Writer. Short Con Operator. Actor. Convict. Screenwriter. Career Criminal. Redemption To quote the Kris Kristofferson song The Pilgrim; Chapter 33 He's a poet he's a picker he's a prophet he's a pusher. He's a pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he's stoned. He's a walkin' contradiction partly truth and partly fiction. Taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.”

For my money Edward “Eddie” Bunker is one of the greatest American crime novelists ever. His art is one of the truest examples of the old adage, “write what you know”. His works of literature span five novels No Beast So Fierce (1973). James Ellroy had this to say about Bunker’s debut novel,  “The most gritty and realistic novel about armed robbery.” The Animal Factory (1977) Little Boy Blue (1981) Stark (2006) and Dog Eat Dog (1995) which is now a film Directed By Paul Schrader and Starring Nicholas Cage and Willem Dafoe and premiering at Midnight Madness this year. There is also a short story collection Death Row Breakout and Other Stories which was posthumously published in 2010. As well as an autobiography Mr. Blue: Memoirs of a Renegade (1999) issued in the United States as Education of a Felon (2000)

Well before Eddie Bunker was a writer he was a hardened criminal. He was a short con operator who specialized in cons “The Match”, “The Strap”, and “Laying The Note”. Bunker was a drug dealer and an armed robber.  He was once shot in a liquor store robbery attempt. He also dabbled in extortion and forgery. “Do the crime, do the time.” And Eddie served his. Eddie Bunker had the distinction in 1951 to be the youngest inmate of San Quentin prison. In one of Bunker's brief sojourns on “the outside” he befriended Louis Wallis who was the wife of Hal Wallis producer of Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon. It was during this four and a half year bid that Bunker would discover books and begin to write. While in San Quentin the prisoner in the cell beside him Caryl Chessman was sentenced to death row. Chessman had written a book entitled Cell 2455 Death Row about his experience awaiting execution and a first chapter excerpt appeared in Argosy, a pulp magazine. Eddie Bunker was doing a stretch in solitary confinement, "The Hole", where you were not allowed to read anything except the bible. Chessman gave the Argosy pulp to Bunker to read and it was here Eddie had an epiphany, “It blew my mind that a convict, much less one on death row (could write a book) and that night all of a sudden it just came to me, “If he can do it, why can’t I do it. I’m not facing the death penalty. I have all the time in the world.” Louis Wallis sent him a Royal portable typewriter and a subscription to the New York Times Sunday edition and Book Review. He sold his blood to pay for postage to submit his manuscripts to dozens of magazines and publishers. During a sentence in Folsom prison he would meet and befriend Danny Trejo. The two would become friends who would later act together in films. By the time Eddie Bunker's time was all said and done Eddie would spend eighteen years of his life incarcerated. Upon his release in 1975 he finally went straight and never looked back. He began to pursue writing and acting full time.

In 1978 the adapted screenplay of his novel No Beast So Fierce was released as Straight Time. The film directed by Ulu Grosband would star Dustin Hoffman in the lead role; the film would also mark Mr. Bunker’s first screen credit playing the character “Mickey”. Many years later a young director would study this film at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute for Filmmakers. That director’s name, Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino would cast Eddie Bunker in the role “Mr. Blue” in Reservoir Dogs. 1980 would see Bunker playing the character “Chadwell” in Walter Hill’s The Long Riders It was in 1985 that Eddie would act in the film Runaway Train. Mr. Bunker was also one of the co-writers of the Runaway Train screenplay. The film would see three Oscar nominations. Best actor Jon Voight. Best actor in a supporting role, Eric Roberts and best film editing, Henry Richardson. Not bad for a Canon film that was produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus.  All and all he would have close to thirty screen credits. Some of his notable appearances include parts in Running Man, Miracle Mile and Tango & Cash to name a few. It is said that Jon Voight’s character in Michael Mann’s Heat was modeled after Eddie.

The novels and screenplays of Mr. Bunker are raw, visceral experiences made even more poignant by the fact that he lived it. He confronts pain, rage, race and frustration exactly how you think he would. Head on. The arc of Edward Bunker’s life is a true testament of redemption and rehabilitation. Mr. Bunker would pass away on July 19, 2005 at the age of seventy-one from complications due to surgery. His books live on.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Monday, July 11, 2016

SPL 2: A Time For Consequences. World Premiere Interviews with Soi Cheang & Paco Wong

On September 17, 2015 SPL 2: A Time For Consequences had it's world premiere at the 2015 Midnight Madness program at the Toronto International Film Festival. Robert A. Mitchell was on the red carpet and spoke with director Soi Cheang and producer Paco Wong. Here are the interviews.

Robert A. Mitchell speaks with Producer Paco Wong

Sharing a laugh with film director Soi Cheang

All photos by Mike Scott

Thursday, June 30, 2016

MEET THE PRODUCERS: Interview With Keith Calder. Bunraku, You're Next, Anomalisa, The Guest, The Wackness

This is the third installment in the ongoing series Meet the Producers of Midnight Madness 2010.

Let me introduce you to Keith Calder. Mr. Calder arrived on the film scene as an executive producer for the Midnight Madness film All The Boys Love Mandy Lane. In subsequent years he has also produced such films as Battle For Terra and The Wackness and is executive producing Walter Hill's next film St. Vincent. Bunraku marks Mr. Calder's return to the Midnight Madness program.

It has been five years since you produced All The Boys Loved Mandy Lane. What changes have you seen in the business side of the film industry in those five years?

In all honesty, it's hard for me to separate my own personal experience from the overall business. When we shot ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE, I was a year out of film school. I thought I knew how to make movies, and I thought I knew how the film business worked. Here I am five years later, and I realize that I'm only just starting to learn how to make movies and how the film business works. It's hard for me to tell how much the film business has changed, and how much of the perceived "change" is just me understanding the film business better. But with my current understanding of the film business, I'll try to answer as best I can. The biggest change I've seen in the film business over the last five years is that it's now easier to get talented people to want to work on your independent film, but it's harder to sell your finished film.

Bunraku was financed outside the studio system yet attracted top name talent,. How did so many name actors sign onto the project?

We had a pretty hefty package of material that we presented to actors when we approached them to be in BUNRAKU. We had the screenplay, and a DVD of concept art, previz, and style clips. On top of that, Guy Moshe is obviously a talented and compelling director and the actors were drawn to the idea of working with him on the film. I think that a lot of the actors were taking a big risk coming a board an independent film like this, but their doubts were answered after a couple days working with Guy, the rest of the cast, and our incredible crew.

There is always pressure for a film to perform well in the box office and I'm sure this pressure has increased ten-fold in recent years. Does this pressure ever affect the vision of a film? Is there ever a temptation to make a film more mainstream and more accessible?

The short answer is easy: Yes, there is always a temptation to make a film more mainstream and more accessible.

The long answer is more complicated. With every film I produce, I try to make a classic of the genre. It may sound egotistical to say that, but I think there's no other way to be successful in this business. You aim for greatness, so if you fall short you still have a good film. If you aim for "good-enough", you'll end up landing at "piece-of-crap". So with a big independent film like BUNRAKU we took on a huge risk, but we only did so because we believed it had the potential to be a classic of the genre. It's too soon to say if we landed close to our mark, but when your goals are that lofty you start to worry less about "accessible" and "mainstream". "Accessible" and "mainstream" are really sub-goals of "awesome" and "great". If it's great enough, then it becomes accessible. If it's awesome enough, then it becomes mainstream. So yes, I always try to make my films mainstream and accessible, just not by dumbing them down or sacrificing the craft.

This interview first appeared 09/10/10 on the TIFF Midnight Madness Blog 

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

MEET THE PRODUCERS: An Interview with Ted Hope

Midnight Madness Producers Part 2: Ted Hope - SUPER

This is the second in an ongoing series, Meet The Producers Of Midnight Madness 2010.

Let me introduce you to Ted Hope. He is a producer that has many years of experience in the film industry and he is very generous with the vast knowledge he has acquired throughout his career.

In the late 1980s, American independent film burst on the scene with the promise of new visions, new stories, and new approaches. Ted Hope was among the first producers to emerge from the pack and one of the few today consistently delivering vital and exciting new work. With partner Anne Carey, Hope is the co-founder of New York production company This is That. In six years, This is That has produced seventeen features. A survey of Hope’s work, numbering over fifty films, includes many highlights and breakthroughs of the last two decades. Ted’s films have received numerous awards, including three Academy Award Best Screenplay nominations. He is currently the head of motion pictures for Amazon Studios.

You recently wrote that there are two determining factors on how your films are made: superior quality of the material, and the willingness of the collaborators to make great sacrifices. In regards to Super, could you talk about some of the sacrifices you and your team made to realize the film?

Super was a wonderful example of team work. We communicated our limitations to everyone before they signed on, and with only one exception, everyone recognizes that we were in it together. Indie filmmaking is a demonstration on the interconnectedness of all things. If you go over on the wardrobe budget, it means you can't license the music you want at the end of the day. The cast and crew got this. No one had anything beyond the essentials. We were lean and mean, a rapid Super shooting machine. It was always about the movie and not the perks. The crew had the best housing -- and Miranda, James, and I had the worst.

This isn't the kind of movie that gets made every day and every one indicated that they knew it was a privilege to be part of it. Yet, you can't ask people to do their best work and truly give their all, if such an example of commitment wasn't embraced from the top down. James Gunn's enthusiasm, passion, and preparedness was infectious. He was first to arrive and knew what he wanted. He made his process transparent and was the first to enforce the necessity to move fast. The team organized so well around him that we never had to sacrifice quality.

We have seen most of the studio "independents" fall by the wayside recently. It seems to me the film business is becoming huge studio productions and small DIY films. What is your take on the current state of the film-making business? Do you foresee anyone stepping in to replace medium budgeted productions?

It's true that the middle ground has vanished. I feel fortunate to have been able to work at a time and at a pace that I have been able to establish a track record of quality films produced at limited budgets that deliver profitable results. It is going to be really difficult to create challenging work unless it embraces minimal budgets or utilizes audience appealing genres. It is really surprising to me that there are not more companies committed to the space that once was occupied by the likes of New Line & Dimension.

With the polarities of content and budget prominent in the industry today, actors are struggling to find roles that allow them to truly create unique characters in unique situations. It is the best time to cast challenging material that I have ever experienced. Good actors need good work. I have been really impressed with the quality of actor-centric genre films from all over the globe this past year, from MOON to HOUSE OF THE DEVIL to THE SQUARE to THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED to THE PROPHET to ANIMAL KINGDOM. These are awesome films with real audience appeal, albeit not at the largest numbers but at defined, easy to reach, internationally appealing strands. There is good business to be done, and new technologies to deliver it. Once folks on all sides realize where we really are right now, audiences are going to experience a golden age of great work.

You have also written that "being a film producer requires abandoning the concept that you work for a living." Could you elaborate on this?

I was very fortunate to start producing when I did in the late '80s. The business had changed and the mainstream infrastructure failed to acknowledge it for almost a decade. I benefited for fifteen years by that oversight. The film business has changed again, but our methods, models, and work still is based on practices of many years ago. We are not living and working in the present. Our work currently is not able to extract it's full value from utilizing the current practices and platforms.

Because film is currently a capital intensive growth-focused industry, we will forever be experiencing boom and bust cycles, and the tragedies that come with it. Those that have the capital generally establish footholds and gates that allow to maximize earnings from the labor and art of others -- they take the risk and reap the benefits as a result, or at least that's the structure of the world we work in. Creators and artists are first concerned with getting their work made; this desire makes them vulnerable and they are exploited.

Early on, I was asked whether I was a filmmaker or a businessman. I thought I could be both, but when you care first and foremost about your film, you are willing to make great sacrifices to get your movie made. I work to get my movies made -- and still can earn a living doing that. IMHO, movies are too hard to make well to make anything other than what you care about. Once you reveal you care, you are open to being exploited, even by your partners. Even if I am not being fairly compensated, I am still happy to be able to support myself and all the others I employ, by working at creating movies I am passionate about. I would shoot myself if I had to create the crap that is generally passed off as entertainment these days, but you can earn a living producing it! At least, I still have that choice!

This Interview first appeared 09/08/10 on the TIFF Midnight Madness Blog

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

MEET THE PRODUCERS: Interview With Peter Block John Carpenter's The Ward

Midnight Madness Producers Part 1: Peter Block - JOHN CARPENTER'S THE WARD

This is the first in an ongoing series, Meeting The Producers Of Midnight Madness 2010.

Don't let the big name talent fool you, the ten films that make up this year's Midnight Madness program have all been made outside of the traditional Hollywood studio system. These ten independent features have all faced their own challenges and the standard ones of not enough time and not enough money. I recently had the opportunity to pose questions to the producers of the films so please follow me as we Meet the Producers of Midnight Madness 2010. Let me introduce you to Peter Block.

Mr. Block, formerly was President of acquisitions and co-productions of Lionsgate. In 2008 he formed A Bigger Boat productions in order to produce and distribute genre films and television.

What did you learn from being the President of Acquisitions & Co-Productions at Lionsgate that informed your decision to form your own production company A Bigger Boat in 2008?

What I had learned in my time at Lionsgate, and as far back as the early '90s when I found that a company could actually exist on a slate of straight to video horror titles, and sometimes you discovered fantastic new directors, such as Guillermo del Toro, "Cronos" and Peter Jackson "Dead Alive". I also learned that the horror audience was vibrant, dedicated and social. Whether the films were good or bad, was often not nearly as important as whether there was a great death scene, or even a really bad line-reading. The audience showed up again and again and shared their experiences with one another.

By 2008, I had spent the better part of a decade at Lionsgate, and had been able to chart its course into the genre world from the arthouse circuit; I can still recall the great conversation when we were able to convince Chairman Jon Feltheimer that (a) "House Of 1000 Corpses" really was an arthouse movie (perhaps one for an outhouse crowd), and (b) that he should never watch it. So began a great trajectory beginning with "Cabin Fever", right here at TIFF, which allowed us to not only play in the genre sandbox, but to dig deep for hidden gems that other studios wouldn't touch, like "Devil's Rejects", "Hard Candy" and "The Descent". After spending time finding and producing commercial (Saw, Crank, Open Water) and critical (Crash, Girl With A Pearl Earring, Fido) successes for the company, I had a chance to fully delve into the indie producing world, while at the same time further exploring some of my genre sensibilities. There were stories I was still interested in telling, and directors (like genre-fave Adam Green, new-comers like Mark Tonderai and the legendary John Carpenter) that I wanted to work with. Plus, in A Bigger Boat, I already had a great company name picked out and, with the help of my pal Tim Williams, a fun animated logo...

The Ward was made outside of the studio system, what were some of the unique challenges this presented?

The Ward was made outside of the studio system for a variety of reasons. Firstly, we (my partners at Echo Lake Productions, and I) wanted to entice John Carpenter to direct the movie, and we knew John was partial to his independence (we found out later that that sentiment extended to "from producers" as well!). Secondly, the industry was changing. Studios were less interested in lower budgeted genre fare, in favor of tent-pole releases with name stars to drive ticket sales, and with it corporate earnings and stock prices. Along those same lines, most studios are more interested in keeping cost commitments as low as possible, preferring to explore co-production ventures, off-balance sheet financing, and pursuing post-production acquisitions over pre-production financial commitments.

So, while no studio came aboard before we made The Ward, it did open up some possibilities elsewhere. Many foreign territories have distributors with output deals with different Hollywood studios, and their offerings reflect largely what the studio feeds them. So your film doesn't always end up with the right distributor overseas, but rather the one with whom the studio has a pre-existing relationship. We got to approach each territory separately, and our foreign sales partner --- Glen Basner's FilmNation --- did a masterful job setting us up with enough pre-sales overseas --- to distributors excited at the prospect of a new John Carpenter film --- that we were able to finance the movie, albeit with less than John or we hoped. And so began the search for where to shoot, a decision complicated by the ever-changing exchange rate of the U.S. Dollar. So initial explorations of Toronto and Winnipeg eventually gave way to a terrific team in Spokane Washington, which had an unknown production team but a great tax rebate program. But in then end, it all comes down to not the elements you don't have, but the quality of the ones you do, and we have a great story, a camera-friendly and talented cast, and a director who knows a thing or two about the art of the scare. I'd say we're doing ok.

I recently spoke with David Cronenberg and he said that in today's climate your past track record does not matter anymore. Each film has to be tackled as though it was your first project. You yourself have an impressive track record, how are you finding the business of raising money for a project?

I think David's right in some regards, but let's not forget: he's David Cronenberg, and he's done some of his most outstanding work lately with "Eastern Promises" and "History Of Violence". So I could disagree and say his body of work makes him ever-relevant, and at the same time his recent work is so strong that anyone would love to have the opportunity to be involved with a new project. But overall he's correct and it's as much a function of the "what have you done for me lately?" mentality as it is a matter that studio needs (and studio personnel) are ever-changing, coupled with the collapsing of industry windows and revenue streams.

Moreover, movie years are like dog years: by the time your movie gets made, released and finds it's way to a studio (non)profit statement, another 600 films have come and gone through theaters, to say nothing of those that bypass theatrical altogether. By the time you want to make a follow-up to your movie, the first one has been released and critiqued, amortized and analyzed, and most likely already replicated enough times so that's it's either deemed a classic or already forgotten. And all of that is further enhanced by the fact that everyone's always looking for a reason to say "no"; rarely does anyone get fired for not green-lighting a project, but the corollary isn't always true. So you've got to make sure your successes are recent enough to stay relevant in an ever-changing marketplace, and you've got to have a package that demands a "yes" when both economics and job preservation dictate otherwise. In other words, I'm no longer the guy responsible for "Saw" or "Open Water" or "The Descent"; I'm just the guy who this year made "Frozen" and The Ward and released "The Disappearance Of Alice Creed". And I'm hoping I can still get the director of "Scanners" on the phone.

 This Interview first appeared 09/07/10 at the Tiff Midnight Madness Blog