Last year, filmmaker (and occasional Blogcritics contributor) Lucas McNelly took part in a Twitter challenge to produce a feature length film in two weeks (#2wkfilm). If you think such an idea borders on insanity, you're probably right. If you think the results of such an effort would border on the unwatchable, you'd best think again.
Blanc de Blanc, a well-written and well-acted mystery wrapped in a romance, is watchable and engrossing, with performances and production values that belie its minuscule budget and impossible time frame. And because of McNelly's own efforts at self-promotion, movie-goers in the northern reaches of New England will have a chance to see it on the big screen on May 14 when it screens at the Flagship Cinemas in Thomaston, Maine.
The details of the challenge, along with some discussion of McNelly's pre-production process, have been described elsewhere, but the basics are this: the participants (which included two filmmakers besides McNelly) agreed to each deliver a feature film (minimum of 60 minutes in length) made in two weeks, from shooting to a fine cut.
To follow up on this most interesting project, a Q & A with Lucas McNelly, in which we talk about the production process and the future of independent film distribution:
In the last column you did here, you were writing about pre-production. Did you encounter any unanticipated problems during shooting/post-production, or did things go fairly smoothly?
Yeah… all sorts of stuff. The biggest problem we ran into was that we lost a microphone on our fourth day of filming and, as a result, had to use the camera mic for a couple of scenes. Basically, that meant we had to add some ADR [dubbing in re-recorded dialog after filming] after the fact, which was a headache. We did that in the rafters of a church auditorium.
We filmed for four and a half days, roughly 18-20 hours each day, and if you look closely, you can see it in the actors. By about halfway through the fourth day, they're just exhausted. Everyone was.
Eighty percent of the dialogue was improvised from an outline that changed throughout filming, so the issue we came to in editing was that there wasn't a definite sequence of scenes. The further I got into the editing process, I realized there was a ton of different directions we could take the film, simply by shuffling the scenes around. There's a couple of stopping points beyond which a scene can't move. The placing of the box, for example, was a scene that would affect numerous other scenes, so once we moved that, we couldn't move certain scenes past it in either direction. But other than that, the middle is pretty fluid, so there's a couple of different edits floating around that contain completely different sequences of events. I was moving scenes around all the way through the sound mix, well past my "picture lock."
What happened to the #2wkfilm films right after you all finished production?
Well, we kind of went in different directions. Reid Gershbein and Mike Peter Reed put their films online pretty much right away. You can see them for free on YouTube, I believe. I'm not convinced that giving your film away for free right off the bat is such a great idea, so I hung onto mine, cleaned it up a bit, and screened it in Pittsburgh, then at a couple of festivals that gave us waivers, and, most recently, at the Annapolis Pretentious Film Society, where I proceeded to apparently frustrate the hell out of them in the Q&A.
How did the Maine screening come about?
The Maine screening came about basically by me emailing the manager at the theater and saying, "Hey, I'm originally from the area and I have this film I'm trying to screen places. I'm pretty sure we won't be the lowest-grossing film you play in your multiplex." Damnedest thing, it worked. I figured they'd just ignore me. So we're going to be playing in a multiplex next to Iron Man 2 and Robin Hood. We think this makes Blanc de Blanc the lowest-budgeted film to ever play for a week in a multiplex. If not, it's pretty close.
Musicians figured out a long time ago how to bypass the industry gatekeepers by making good use of the Internet. It seems as though filmmakers are catching up finally. Do you agree with that, and where do you think the future of independent film distribution lies? Do you think online distribution will become an end in itself for some filmmakers?
That's the million dollar question(s), isn't it?
I think we're catching up, but film has an inherent disadvantage in that music is much more easily digestible. A band can play at bars while people are drinking and grow their audience, but in order to do the same thing with a film, people have to be willing to give you 90 minutes of their lives. So there's a lot more involved in talking them into doing that.
As far as indie distribution goes, I think what you're going to see is a process evolve: 1) the film's budget (at least some of it) gets crowdfunded on Kickstarter or whatever, thus getting an audience invested in the project and — most importantly — lowering the filmmaker's risk. 2) You'll then be able to buy the film in some form (along with t-shirts and the soundtrack and whatever) on the filmmaker's webpage, probably via PayPal. VOD will be part of that. 3) Any big screen experience is going to come via the filmmaker hitting the pavement and setting up screenings, whether they be at a multiplex or a room above a bar or a big living room or a sheet strung between two trees. And there you'll be able to engage the filmmaker directly, which will be huge.
In short, I think we're going to become a group of artists peddling their wares around the country. Maybe not quite out of the back of our cars, but kind of. But it'll be personal, and that'll create a stronger affinity between audiences and filmmakers. And when some filmmakers make the leap to studio pictures, the studios are going to realize that these people have a really strong, motivated following. Then, the light bulb is going to go off.
Are there any technical details about the production process you'd like to share?
Well, we shot in HD on an HVX camera that we borrowed. Edited it on Final Cut in my living room (much thanks to my girlfriend for putting up with all of that).
Jerome Wincek recorded the score as I was editing the film, working mostly off of rough cuts I'd send him. I'm not entirely sure if he ever saw the final cut of the film before he turned in his score. Then we mixed the whole thing at Widget Studios in Philly. My friend Dave Young was nice enough to do a free sound mix for us. In fact, everyone worked on this film for free.
We borrowed the camera from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh for two days and from local filmmaker Jeff Waltrowski for the other two days. Rented a couple of Kino lights which we used for pretty much everything and borrowed a basic lighting kit from a local church.
Our total budget: $970. That includes food.
What's next, both for Blanc de Blanc and for yourself? Do you have another film project on your calendar?
Sleep? We'd hoped to have the DVD done in time for this run, but we couldn't get it all done in time, so there's that left to finish. I think as far as showing, it all depends on how this does. If we have a line out the door, we might be able to more easily book it other places. If not, I'm sure we'll book it other places, it just might take some more legwork.
I'm working on my next project, though. I've got a 16-page outline that I'm going to start fleshing out after Blanc's theatrical run. The working title is Suicide is Painless and it's more or less about the financial crisis and how it affects a pretty normal person who's just trying to get by the best he can. Spoiler alert: things go badly for him.
Blanc de Blanc features good performances all around, but most particularly from Jason Kirsch and Rachel Shaw as David and Jude, the couple at the story's center. In addition to directing, McNelly co-wrote with Kirsch and Shaw from a story by Jennifer Blyler. You can learn more at Blanc de Blanc's official website, where you can pre-order a DVD (or a poster — or both!) or purchase a digital copy.
Watch the trailer: