Months before I contacted Pawnee/Shawnee/Comanche filmmaker Rod Pocowatchit about whether he would consider writing an article concerning the making of his award-winning feature, Sleepdancer, I read his online blog. He was articulate—no doubt about that, but it was his self-deprecating humor and total lack of conceit that caught my attention and had me sold that I was going to like him before we had ever exchanged a single email. I mean, here was a guy that could share his frustrations and foibles and not take himself too seriously all the while taking what he does—which is writing and filming and acting—very very seriously indeed.
True to form, he doesn't disappoint. You will laugh and learn and enjoy what he has to say and, yeah, you will also like Rod himself. You can read more about Sleepdancer from the viewer's perspective in my piece that follows…
Oh, one more thing. Don't let Rod kid you—he's a helluva talent, and Sleepdancer is just the beginning—CQL
Wanna know how to make your first film? Ask someone else. But if you have to ask me, here's what I say.
I am the first person to admit that I am a total hack. There are filmmakers out there with far more training, skill and experience than myself. That said, I have managed to make several short films and two features through sheer determination and faith — in my projects and myself. So people are always asking me for advice.
"How do I get started?" "What should I do?"
I have no real answers for them. And other people are far more qualified to offer suggestions. I can only explain how I went about it. I didn't go to an official film school (though I have an extensive theatre background). But I like to say I went to the film school of hard knocks — figuring it out as I went along.
Here's how I made Sleepdancer, and what little advice I have to anyone thinking of making their first film.
1. I found a story I loved.
Sleepdancer was the first short I ever made, and I wrote it based on a dream I had. I loved the story and idea so much, I wanted to explore it more, so I did. And I loved delving into these characters, shaping them, their worlds, what happened to them long before the actual script ever starts, and what happens to them long after it ends.
It's important to know all these aspects of your characters, because it affects your story profoundly. You have to know them inside and out, whether it's blatantly shown in the script or not. I included some things from my childhood into the childhoods of these characters, and it helped shaped some of the dialogue and how they react to the world around them (and ended up as some of the lines that get the most laughs).
2. I kept it simple.
I tend to write my main characters with people already in mind for the part, vaguely tapering the character to the actual person's own mannerisms. It just helps me to have that visual, even if the person I have in mind ends up cast as that character or not.
I also keep locations and action simple. We had little to no money for a budget, so I kept the locations needed to a minimum: a few houses, a few restaurants, etc. And I cleared actually shooting there as I was writing the script. We also had no money for a special effects budget or stunt men, so in a crucial car crash scene, I opted to do sound FX over black, letting the viewer's mind make up the rest (which I'm a big fan of, anyway). Sleepdancer is very character-driven, so there was no need for elaborate sets. Art direction was simple, using mostly existing locales, but altering the surroundings slightly to fit the characters.
3. I found people who believed in my story — and me.
Since Sleepdancer was our second feature, finding people to help out wasn't as hard as it was the first time out with Dancing on the Moon. You tell people you're making a movie, especially in Kansas where that doesn't happen all too often, and you get a dumfounded reaction, like you've suddenly stopped speaking English.
"Yeah, we're making a movie and we wondered if we gu had glfj agdh lih use your store jhh dggh ggjsdbx!"
Having a feature already under our belt did help immensely. But, alas, it's always hard to keep people motivated, especially when you can't pay anyone — and that's when you really find out who your true friends are. For instance, I held a kickoff party for Sleepdancer to boost enthusiasm (nothing fancy, it cost me probably $75 total with snacks, beer and low-end champagne for a toast).
It was packed. Then slowly, the number of people wanting to help dwindled down to just a few. People will say, "Oh, yeah, I'll help out." But then they figure out that this is all a lot of work, and disappear faster than a Jessica Simpson brain cell.
I am truly lucky in that I have many friends and truly supportive family, so I can always rely on them to help out as much as they can. It's really great to see everyone come together for one common goal: To tell a story. Your story. So if you don't believe in it, no one else will.
4. Read-through, rehearse and rewrite.
Writing dialogue is tough. And you can read it to yourself over and over and even read it out loud, but when you actually listen to actors read it, it turns to dog poop. Writing is rewriting, as they say. And they're right.
I worked with one of my leads, Mark Wells, before we ever got close to the shooting stage to rehearse as we went along, especially since my character doesn't talk. I wanted to experiment communicating with him without the use of words.
I also scrapped a very minor character at the last minute, both because I was having trouble casting it and because without it, the story was much more focused. You have to be flexible.
5. Plan, plan and plan some more.
When you don't have a staff of 20 people, you find you are your own assistant. So I made lists of lists and everything in between, from wardrobe to props, then turned these over to my production manager, who delegated (or just took care of it herself). You can't be too organized before you shoot.
And that's not even counting a shot list or storyboards. You MUST have a visual plan for shooting (edit in the camera, as they say) — and then don't be afraid to completely ignore those once you start shooting to adjust for the situation. We did — a lot.
I also started thinking about Sleepdancer visually very early on, and held conversations with my D.P. Shawn Cunningham. The movie is literally divided into three acts, and I wanted each act to have its own visual feel to reflect the story. Act One follows Derek, as he gets to know my character Tommy. I wanted all of Act One to be handheld, slightly jittery, to mirror Derek's unsure state.
Act Two follows Ben Running Scout, the fiery, angry brother. I wanted this to all be tripod, black and white to mirror his mentality: You're either with me or against me. And the final act centers on my character Tommy, who doesn't speak. I wanted all of this to be very still and staid, all tripod, highlights blown out, to echo his quiet state of mind. Once outside of the house, the camera may move a bit, but I wanted it very fluid, dreamlike.
6. Ease into it.
I wanted the first week of shooting to mostly be one location, mostly interiors. And I tried to design light first days for everyone, to get the enthusiasm flowing and to get into a shooting groove. On Dancing, we shot the most difficult sequence first, only because of scheduling, and it was a grueling, horrible first day. No way to start your shooting schedule.
Remember to take breaks, drink water and eat something. Often. Sounds elementary, but if you don't, you'll crash.
7. Have fun.
Why else do this? But when you're right in the middle of shooting, things get hectic. I was worrying about the shot at hand, then the next shot in the back of my mind. I had several people asking me questions that they needed answers to right then — AND I was acting on top of it all. It can be daunting.
I think shooting is the hardest, most laborious part of the filmmaking process. But it's also wonderful and fun. Just remember that, no matter how harried it gets. And if it's not fun, something's wrong.
Also remember that whatever can go wrong will. It's a fact. Just be flexible. Everything will be fine.
8. Trust your crew.
OK, so you're well into the shoot, and things are going great. Why? Because you aren't trying to do ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING. Worry about the big stuff and let your crew do their job. Granted, when you've assembled that crew out of nothing, you keep an eye on stuff, but people are there because they want to do a good job. And they will. A good rapport with your D.P. and boom man (or field mixer if you can afford one) is critical.
9. Digitize often.
We shot on a Panasonic DVX-100A, 24p, digital video. Loved the results. I made it a point to digitize files into the computer early and often so I wouldn't have one big chunk to do at once (like I did on Dancing).
And since I was also the editor, I made sure to log stuff as we watched dailies. If you stay on top of this, you can also point out reshoots early, and perhaps get them while you're still set up in the same location. I know this sounds obvious (Duh!), but it all comes down to being completely, absolutely, overly organized. And if I can do it, anyone can.
10. Sound is tough.
Especially on a cheap or non-existing budget. No one watches a scene with two people talking in a room and says, "Wow. That was really nice audio."
Granted, it should be invisible, but if the sound is bad, it will detract from what the actors are saying in the first place. Audiences will forgive bad video, but not bad audio.
We have found that NO ROOM IS QUIET ENOUGH, however hard we try. So it's imperative to get the best location sound you can and to have a knowledgeable post sound mixer. Ours, Sergio Sanmiguel, was a great, enthusiastic, knowledgeable guy. Still, some stuff we gave him was almost beyond repair, and he had to do the best he could. And looping or foley work was not an option for us with our capabilities.
Make the most of what you have, but I can't stress how important it is to think about sound early — it's often an afterthought and shouldn't be.
11. Edit, edit, edit.
I like to roughly cut sequences I'm excited about first (I used Final Cut Pro 4 on Sleepdancer). And this is the part I absolutely love, when all of your hard work writing, directing and shooting all finally gels into a flowing scene. Wow! You've made a movie. Suddenly, you'll feel invulnerable, and you may feel like fighting crime. Don't.
When you get a rough cut of the whole movie that you're satisfied with, have others watch it (definitely some who know nothing of the story). Get feedback, of course, but don't take criticism personally because it may help your project. But also stick to your guns when needed and go with your instincts. But be willing to cut your favorite stuff, however much it may "hurt," if it doesn't advance the story. Every frame of the film should do that. If it doesn't, get rid of it.
Once your film is done, enjoy it. You've done an amazing thing, and if you're like us with very limited funds and not much experience, you've accomplished a HUGE feat. Show it, be proud of it, relish the moment.
You now have a movie in your hands to show for all your hard work. But also realize that it's going to be overly easy for people to sum up your months or years of hard work into one of two words: Good or Bad.
But also remember that you actually made a movie — and where's theirs?
Then go headfirst into the promotion phase, and this is a whole different animal and job unto itself.
Make sure you have a Web site, even if it's a very basic one (ours is www.harmyfilms.com). This is the equivalent of a business card for your movie. I maintain and design our Web site — it helps that I am also a graphic designer by day. But designers are everywhere, and many will want to be involved in a film project just to get their work seen, you just have to find them.
It's also very important to have professional-looking promotional materials (posters, postcards, cover art, etc.). GET A DESIGNER TO DO THIS, not just your best friend who has a computer. (I also design all of our promotional materials and freelance, so I will gladly design yours for cheap. Hey, I know how it goes.)
Finally…Try to get your film out there in the reel world, through festivals or any means possible, but be warned, this is no easy task. I think the odds of just getting a movie completed are through the roof, but the odds of getting it seen are even higher. But don't let that stop you. Please.
It didn't stop us. Or Ed Wood. He was probably the worst filmmaker ever, and people told him to his face. But he didn't care, he made movies because that's what he wanted to do.
And so will you and me.
Carole Quattro Levine
What makes a good movie is the same thing that makes a good novel. A story that commands your senses; characters that have you caring about who they are and where they came from, and if it's really good, wondering what might happen to them once the screen goes black.
Sleepdancer has you caring and wondering.
The second feature written and directed by and starring Rod Pocowatchit, Sleepdancer is above all else a drama about everyday people in an anyplace town with regrets, secrets, tragedy and eventually, forgiveness. The film begins with an earnest coroner's investigator, Derek Smith, studying the death of a 65-year-old Native man who died of natural causes. What should be a routine assignment turns into an obsession for Derek, played with understated realism by Mark Wells, as he delves into the past of the disturbed, mute son, Tommy.
As Tommy, Rod fills the screen as a tic-afflicted dead man walking. With less than several sentences of dialogue in the entire film, he is the core of the story—what happened to this formerly "normal" guy that has transformed him into a zombie?
This is the question that engulfs Derek as he unwelcomingly inserts himself into a family dynamic at the expense of opening his own wounds and risking the safety of a career and sweet gal waiting impatiently at home. A half-Indian raised parentless in a foster home, he finds himself looking into a metaphorical mirror every bit as ambiguous as the letters he reads from Tommy's past. It isn't until the arrival of older brother Ben that the silent sibling's mystery begins to unfold.
Guy Ray Pocowatchit, as Ben, is likeably unlikable with few ethics; yet he's also the most clear-thinking of all three with arguably the best lines. When Derek asks about his personal status as the two drink away their demons at the local bar, Ben replies, "No wife, no kids, no skanks. I like it that way." …Come on, you gotta love the guy (pun intended), jackass or not. Together, the unlikely alliance of the loser and the duty-bound—one searching for answers, the other seeking to bury them—work to recover the broken man who holds such power over both.
Throughout the movie, the characters are at once needy and resilient; loving but callous; in essence incredibly, indelibly human. Clearly, Pocowatchit knows these people he has created for us onscreen, and his writing demonstrates that familiarity. The scenes look real because they are real; how refreshing not to detect a Hollywood set designer's contrivance of a Middle American city depicting working class Natives. Instead, the movie was filmed entirely in his hometown of Wichita, and this authenticity and affection shows in every frame, from the photo poster on the wall to the grass dancer's regalia.
Originally trained as an actor, Pocowatchit jokes that he started making movies to guarantee himself acting jobs. I'm glad he did, since the dude clearly knows how to perform in front of the camera. No overwrought scene-chewing; his subtle portrayal of Tommy should have earned him a boatload of honors last year, (okay he did win Best Actor at the First American in the Arts award) but don't ask me why he was passed over at other venues.
Likewise, Wells is an appealing presence as the good guy coroner, though his low-key Derek would benefit from the occasional adrenalin infusion. Still, Sleepdancer is only the second feature film for Wells, and that being said, his no-nonsense style is refreshing amidst the overabundance of self-possessed stud muffins prevalent among Native male actors. As Ben, Guy Ray Pocowatchit plays a convincing cad and bum; so convincing that it makes you wonder about ol' Guy Ray…hmmmm….
For the most part, the unseasoned supporting cast recite their lines with awkward tentativeness. In retrospect, however, it generally works. The apartment manager Jack, for example, comes across overly correct in the first interview with Derek. Think about it—wouldn't you come across as formal, even rehearsed, if a coroner was asking you questions about someone's death? In the second scene with Jack, Pocowatchit adds a device that is seemingly small but so common in true conversation; the random, stray comment in a middle of a sentence. Loved it!
No, of course Sleepdancer isn't a flawless film. But Rod Pocowatchit has given us people that will have you caring about who they are and where they came from and wondering what happens to them once the screen goes black.
And that is the quintessential mark of a good story…and a good movie.
To read Rod's blog, see the trailers and learn more about his films, Dancing on the Moon and Sleepdancer, please visit his website at:
www.harmyfilms.com DVDs are also available for purchase.
Images - Fernando Salazar