Part II of interview w/Hillary J. Walker, filmmaker

Filmmaker Hillary J. Walker (writer, director, star of the mockumentary feature ACTION!!!) joins Her Film again to discuss her background in comedy, influences, living & working as a filmmaker, and how to sell a film.

Hillary J. Walker on the set of ACTION!!! Photo courtesy of James Bok

Q: I read that you are involved in an improv comedy troup in Florida (blame google). Did that play a role in your preparation for “Action!”?

A: ABSOLUTELY! ACTION!!! needed actors who could improvise. In fact, I had a few people try to talk me into waiting to shoot until we could get more name talent for a few of the roles and my biggest concern was casting actors unseen, not knowing how their improv skills might compare. In the end, I decided to stay on schedule and go with the actors I had available. As I mentioned, I felt very confident about the people who I cast because I’d already worked with many of them on stage in improv and in film work. I went into ACTION!!! KNOWING I had the right people in the right roles and that’s what made the whole thing work.

Q: You’ve now tackled what some see as a difficult genre to get right — comedy (esp. the mockumentary). Not easy to do! I’m a huge Christopher Guest fan myself. What or who are your comedic influences within film specifically?

A: Well, obviously, Christopher Guest [The A.V. Club] was a HUGE influence for this film in particular.  In fact, less than a week before we began shooting Adam and I were able to attend a Spinal Tap Unplugged concert in Orlando and it was maybe the last little shot of self-confidence I needed to get through the project. All my life people have been telling me I should choose.  Do I want to direct OR write OR act OR produce OR sing OR write music (yep,  I do that too!) and there I was watching three guys who did it all, did it well and had used all their talents to create memorable characters on film and successful careers.  That concert really made me feel validated in a strange way.  Other influences have been Robert Altman [TSPDT] (Short Cuts, Ready to Wear) and Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill).  I really fell in love with ensemble films, intertwined short film anthologies, non-linear storytelling and ultra dark comedy. My favorite films are definitely character-driven, probably because I’m an actress and I’ve always seen great performances as what makes a movie memorable.

But I have to admit that since starting Random Acts, one of my biggest comedic influences are my troupe-mates.  They challenge me to laugh at everything that comes my way and see comedy from different angles and different points of view.  I’ve learned so much by working with them.

Q: What were the most formidable challenges you encountered on this film & how did you overcome them?

A: As a first-time filmmaker, a female filmmaker and a relatively youngish filmmaker trying to do something no one had ever done before I got a lot of opinions thrown my way.  A lot of “you can’ts” and “you shouldn’ts” and “what the hell are you thinkings.”  Fortunately for me, the cast had perfect and complete confidence in me.  Some of our more seasoned crew members, though, thinking they were helping, really forced me stand firm in my vision in a way that sometimes felt like I was being challenged in front of my production.  This is not the norm — although I have seen it happen once or twice.  Most of the directors who I’ve seen get “railroaded” like that tend to be non-confrontational (we are “creative types,” after all) and kind of back down.  I had way too much riding on the production as a whole and we really didn’t have time for the bullsh#t.

Walker (far left in pink) directing ACTION!!! in Florida in 2009 Photo courtesy of James Bok

Although some of the specifics are a little fuzzy, I’ve been told that I stood my ground with firmness, dignity and maybe just a smidge of profanity loud enough to remind everybody who was in charge.  But in a way, having to earn everybody’s respect was a good lesson for me, too.  I remember moments in my military career when I encountered some individuals who wore rank but did nothing to command the status they expected to carry.  Those people were difficult to serve with. The ones who kept their bearings, empowered their people to meet their expectations and had clear vision and direction, they were the ones who always made me feel proud to serve.  I hope that as a director and producer, I am eventually able to inspire that kind of confidence in my team.

Q: How did your perspective as a filmmaker change during the production process (including pre & post-production)?

A: Production is definitely “where it’s at” for me.  I like the doing.  The pre-production and planning can become a bit tedious but the details are sooo important and in our case, with only three weeks to assemble a full crew, a full compliment of equipment, a very large cast, all set amenities and props AND come up with all the money to pay for it — yikes!  It definitely kept me hopping that month. I had a terrifying phone bill… And no matter how much you plan or how well you think you’ve delegated the work, something always goes wrong.  We were supposed to have a bevy of really nice trailers to decorate the set with, but the group that was going to bring them got the dates confused and was out of town on a trip that weekend.  We wound up with this silly little trailer that had pop-out ends and picture of a grizzly bear on the outside.  As calmly as possible, I told a couple of my team members to fix it.  I told them I didn’t care if they went from door to door asking local neighbors if they had a trailer we could borrow —  that’s what they needed to do. That’s exactly what they did and we finally found ONE we could use!  So yeah — no amount of planning keeps problems from happening, but in the moment I am usually able to think fast on my feet (blame the improv!) and figure out ways around our dilemmas.  I was revamping scenes as we went along to cut down on set ups, maximize our time and still tell the story.  So by the time we wrapped I felt pretty good.

Walker (on left in pink) in costume and director-mode on the set of ACTION!!! Photo courtesy of James Bok

A few weeks later Adam showed me the assembly edit he put together and I wanted to cry — not in a good way. He had given it a rather linear construct and in trying to keep a few funny moments in, many of the scenes had been dragged out to a point where they held NO comedic punch.  The problem was, because we were relying so heavily on improv the script wasn’t a very good road map for the edit.  I knew what needed to happen to make it funny, it just wasn’t going to be much fun doing it.  Adam was from a corporate background where the bulk of his films were industrials — informational films commissioned by management who knew NOTHING about filmmaking. They told Adam what message to get out and he was pretty much unfettered in delivering something he was able to maintain creative control over. But he was ALL about pre-planning.  He always knew before he sat down to edit exactly which shots he had and exactly which shots he needed and exactly what order to put them all in to accomplish his objective.  ACTION!!! wasn’t like that.  Sure, we did have a lot of shots we planned on getting.  We also had a lot of great footage that just sort of  “happened.”  And, as with probably any feature, we had a few scenes that just did not work the way I had wanted them to.  But this really wasn’t a forum for linear editing. Actually, because the story is “a day in the life” on a film set, we do have a linear element as the day unfolds, but to punch up the comedy we had to make lots of quick cuts in and out interlacing the actual scenes with moments from the interviews (which were shot very last after all the scene work was done.)  Effectively, the movie edit became the second, more polished draft of the script.  Unfortunately for Adam, this meant he had to work in a way he’d never had to work before, with me literally watching over his shoulder telling him where we needed to go next.  THAT is a true test of fortitude.  There were definitely times we wanted to kill each other, but the funny thing was, in the end, most of our “fights” were us actually agreeing, just using different words to do so — blame Venus and Mars!  In the end, the edit looks pretty much the way I’d always pictured it.  I just found out after the fact that I was the only one who did!

Unfortunately that wasn’t the last of my worries.  After we were happy with the edit there were a few more issues – primarily a few effects that needed to be added, and then final sound mix. I got stuck in this hellish space of not being able to do anything but call people day after day to check on it.  The problem is, when you’re making a movie on virtually no budget and people volunteer to do things for cheap or free, your project takes a major back seat to anything that’s paying them full price.  I knew this going in, but the reality of waiting with my hands tied was maddening.  In the words of my friend Chris Nelson, in this business you can have something Fast and Cheap, Fast and Good or Cheap and Good. You can’t have all three. We opted for Cheap and Good… I can’t complain, because in the end we definitely got far more than we paid for!

Q: As far as festivals, “Action!” has been making the circuit and screened earlier this month at the Broad Humor Festival in California. What has the experience been like seeing it with an audience and schmoozing at fests?

A: Things are going amazingly well for us so far. We held our first Cast and Crew Only preview screening in Altamonte Springs in April during the Florida Film Festival.  The audience LOVED it.  In true improv fashion, many of my long-time troupe-mates said, “That was so much funnier than I was expecting it to be.”  Hey, at least they’re honest!  We got some great local press from the Florida Guard Online and the Daytona Beach News Journal focusing on the fact that I’m a disabled vet using my military training to launch a new career.  We submitted the final edit to a bunch of festivals and we’ve already been accepted to several including — yes — the Broad Humor Film Festival in Venice, California. I think it’s safe to say that they liked it too. Even though we had huge pause in the middle due to some technical difficulties (their DVD player didn’t like two of our discs – so we showed the remainder on our hard drive…) we somehow managed to win the Audience Award!  Festival director Susan diRende [@BroadHumor] commented while she was handing me the award that the comedic moments in ACTION!!! just kept people laughing all the way through.

Photo courtesy of James Bok

But that’s not all.  We have also recently been notified that we have been awarded a 2010 Indie Award of Merit and 2010 LA Movie Award Honorable Mention for Narrative Feature.  Other 2010 LAMA winners include people such as Andre Hennicke, Daniel Baldwin, Samuel Jackson, Hayden Christensen, Rosanna Arquette and Anna Chlumsky, meaning, of course, that we were up against “real movies” for that one, not just fellow low-budget indies.

We actually spent a week in LA including the time we spent at Broad Humor meeting with industry contacts, attending industry events and doing some great team building and networking on the other coast.  We even got some more local press while we were out of town for our Indie win in the Orlando Sentinel.  And since we’ve been back in Florida (less than a week) we’ve had a number of people interested in distribution contact us!  Talk about great surprises!  In August we’ll be back out in force at the Heart of England International Film Festival, followed by the International Film Festival Ireland in September and the International Film Festival South Africa in November. We’re also waiting to hear back from a number of other festivals as well so hopefully we’ll have plenty more U.S. screenings before the end of the year!

Q: A lot of first-time filmmakers fail to market their work or themselves effectively. Can you describe how you’ve tackled this “branding beast” that’s been known to plague many a filmmaker?

A: First of all, I think it’s important to note that publicity and marketing, although deeply intertwined, are two separate things.  Just telling people you made a movie isn’t necessarily a “news item.”  We really tried to get local press out to our Altamonte Springs preview, but no one really seemed to care that a few more Florida filmmakers had tried their hand at the big screen.  Our press came, as I mentioned before, from my ability to pitch a story about me as a disabled female vet using her military training to create a new career.  It probably didn’t hurt that my disability was from surviving cancer either.  Again, this was not “news,” but it does qualify as “special interest.”  People LOVE hard luck cases.

Okay, here’s the truth:  I never really wanted to be thought of as “disabled, cancer-surviving, female” filmmaker.  Of all the elements of my story the only one I had any control over and thus take any pride in is the fact that I served in the military.  Don’t get me wrong — I love being a woman — but I don’t think many of us that get into ANY career field strive to be a female anything (doctor, lawyer, garbage collector.)  We just strive to be successful in our field and being female is just a side-effect of our chromosomes.  That said, when it comes to getting attention for all the hard work all my friends and colleagues put into this film I’m doing everything in my power to get us noticed.  Sure, I’ve tried to “wow” people with the story of the three weeks of pre-pro and only three days of shooting, but to most “civilians” that doesn’t mean anything.  Improv?  So what?  I still get lots of people telling me that they love improv because they watch stand-up comedy all the time. (For those of you who don’t know, not remotely the same thing.)  So the story that’s selling right now is the nine-toed, quirky blonde, cancer-surviving National Guard vet.  So I’m selling it.  Or maybe selling out.  But I have so much confidence in the project that I truly believe that no matter why people watch it, when they see it all they’ll see is the funny and eventually all I’ll be is a filmmaker (who also happens to write, act and sing on the side!)

As for marketing…

Adam and I have been submitting to basically two categories of festivals — those with niches that we fit (comedy, first-film, and female) and those that are ridiculously high profile that true indies don’t get much recognition in (Cannes, Sundance, LA Movie Awards).  In addition to that, we’re tapping all the personal contacts we have for distribution.  What’s kind of crazy is the more you ask around, the more you find that people you’re connected to are connected to other people who can really make doors open.  You just have to keep asking, knocking and turning the knob!  We are still working on distribution, but we have some very important people and companies asking for copies of OUR movie and that feels amazing.

One of the best things I’ve done in the last few weeks was to lighten the load on myself just a bit by bringing on a very gifted young journalist as our publicity intern.  She’s been writing and pushing out press releases for us and created a beautiful very professional looking media kit.  She’d done a lot in a very short time to raise our profile, especially on the “inter-webs” as it were!  Don’t be afraid to delegate!  Sure, as a former journalist myself I know how to write and how to solicit publicity, but having a competent enthusiastic young writer do it for me gives me time I need to take care of other details.  This way so much more is getting done!