Friday, August 28, 2009

LA Times: The Wizards of Hollywood

For all you SpecialFX folks there's a great continuing column at called the Wizards of Hollywood.

Their most recent post is on the art of scalping in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.

You can see all the other posts here.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

3Questions: Greg White - Staff Writer for Comedy Central's "Ugly Americans"

As part of our continuing 3Questions series, I present Greg White, a staff writer for Comedy Central's Ugly Americans premiering March 8th, 10:30 PM, in between South Park and The Daily Show.

As a staff writer, he “helps break and write episodes of our show, my own included, as part of our staff of 6. Incidentally, staff of 6 sounds like a really cool fantasy video game about wizards. Awesome.

"Basically my job duties run from helping come up with and break stories to writing my own episode material to, my favorite, punching up. Punching up is a nice departure from story and character work -- fragmented fun at its best. My boss might come to me and say, 'Hey, we need some alt stuff for so and so to do in this montage: run wild.' And so I go off and see what pops out of my head. Or he'll say, 'Hey, can you write up a brief history of Zombies in the United States?' And I'll go off and write fifteen overzealous pages about the history of zombies in the US of A. It's wildly fun. Did I mention we premiere March 8th and 10:30 PM on Comedy Central?"

HBAD: Yes...several times. So, tell us, how did you get your start?

GW: Man. I finished school at Boston University in 2006 and despite everyone telling me I "needed to move to LA," I thought I'd try and make things on the East Coast work first. I'm from New Jersey and grew up less than 20 miles from Manhattan, so the plan initially was to "get established in New York" and then move to LA triumphant.

I started working at Letterman as a page, then became a freelance monologue writer there (which was a nice feather in the cap, but lead nowhere in a tangible sense). After my year contract was up at Letterman (making a sweet $270 a week before taxes and NJ Transit bus passes were factored in), I was sort of at a loss. I spent a lot of time that year emailing people in our wonderful alumni community and got lots of good advice and made a bunch of great industry chums who I would later call on once I moved to LA.

Anyway, this is July of '07 now. I worked the best job of my life as a PA on "Lidia's Italy" (no, really), temped at HBO in New York (for a day), and played a lot of golf with my dad. All this while I was writing. I think by the end of my first year out of school I had written 4 pilots and a 30 Rock spec. So around October of that year, a friend from school called to say he had a spot in his apartment in West LA opening up. I came out for a week in November, saw the place, met a bunch of alumni and figured I could probably make this work.

I moved out in January of 2008 and spent most of that year doing more odd jobs (PA on BU alum Donick Cary's "Lil' Bush", assistant to Budd Friedman at The Improv, HR filing temp person at Sony, woohoo!), meeting people (tactfully), and writing, writing, writing. If I wasn't eating meals of chickpeas and kale or sleeping, I was writing.

My break, as it were, came after a friend at Comedy Central (who I met through a BU alum) submitted one of my pilots to my current boss, David M. Stern, when he was starting to staff our show. He read my script, liked it, called me in for a meeting, and hired me the following week. Since then it's been a delightful ride.

And for the record, there are far worse places to be unemployed than LA.

HBAD: What are the most difficult challenges you've encountered on your career path?

GW: I am naturally optimistic and enthusiastic, but still, the most important thing for me was always making sure I kept things in perspective. This is a tough industry to break into, but it's very, very doable. It just takes time and patience. Those were the things I had to keep reminding myself whenever I would feel a tinge of disappointment or whatever settling in. I tried every angle I could, and then looked to find more. I always wrote and I felt that since I was doing the work and was talented enough, eventually something would turn up.

But again, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to stay positive and focused. There will be huge successes and there will be disappointments, but as long as you keep an even keel, never getting too far ahead or behind yourself, you'll be fine. Just keep this in mind: there are a lot of people trying to do this job, so it's up to you to outlast and outwork them. Couple that with unwavering patience and belief in your mission and it's more than possible.

HBAD: What advice would you have for someone just starting out in this business, looking to get into TV writing?

GW: 1) Write, write, write. Nobody is going to make you a good writer. That part's up to you.

2) Once you're a good writer, get your name and work out there to whoever you can. Get feedback from anyone whose opinion (professional or otherwise) you trust. And then get anyone who's willing to read your stuff. Eventually the square peg will fall into the square hole.

3) Don't be a douche bag. This is a small industry, and even smaller on the writing side. People get reputations that stick. Also, never lose perspective on how much fun this job can be and is. There is no room for empty feelings of entitlement.

4) The best way to ensure that you'll never write for TV is by giving up. So, you know, don't.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Been Wearing the Director's Cap for a while...

I'm suppose to be writing the new script right now. (Shhh! Don't tell Travis...he doesn't read my blog does he?) There's nothing quite like having not written a post for a week and then suddenly writing one as a way of procrastinating working on the script.

It's been very difficult for me to switch back to "writer-mode" since I've been in "director-mode" for the last couple weeks. It doesn't help that I have a new music video project coming in October which will require me to put the director hat back on, not to mention anything that might come from the video I just finished for W&CK and Universal Music Group or the Mateo Live show I just directed.

I just looked back to what my last post was (not counting 3Questions) and damn, it's been a while and lots has happened, so, let's get to it.

Last Thursday, as I mentioned, I directed the video production of a live show for MySpace artist Mateo and it went really well. The shoot went super smooth, even though we had to take short breaks after every song to reload the cameras and had a 25 minute one right in the middle due to a technical difficulty with the P2 card for the HVX. A small glitch during the download process made us concerned whether or not we had all the footage. Rather than take a chance, we decided to re-download the card, which took some additional time. Other than that, the audience was fantastic, the music was unbelievable, and the footage looks amazing.

In order to get additional footage and close ups, we shot the rehearsal for the show, where we got CU's and other things we probably wouldn't be able to get when the actual show happened. After the main performance, we went back and got CU's of the drummer and bassist on every song, since we hadn't been able to get it during the rehearsal or the main show.

Will did an amazing job lighting the set. I had heard that some people, including one of the MySpace guys, was worried about what we'd be doing for lighting and set design since the room isn't that amazing looking. But Will and Dan had gone to IKEA that night before and picked up tons of really cool lamps and lights. Needless to say, everyone seemed to be really impressed with what we put together with the budget we had. And if you were impressed with what it looked like in person then you're gonna be blown away by the footage from the cameras.

Since then, our editor Vic Brown, has been cutting the 45 minute show. We saw cuts of it on Tuesday and it looked fantastic. Of course, we all had some tweaks to make to it, but everyone is really happy with the result.

I then spent all day Wednesday with Mateo and Vic cutting the the monologues Mateo has during the show, cutting out ums when we can and basically making Mateo sound smart (ha ha). It's really amazing to me how quickly everything has been put together. Pretty much within a two week period everything will be done, from when we got the job to when we're delivering.

Everyone has just been on with their game, which makes me really happy.

Meanwhile, things have been going very well with W&CK's video. I'm getting lots of great feedback from Universal, from people at mtvU, from producers, and just from people in general, so that feels really good. My main man James Cohan (ha ha...rhymes) did an awesome, I mean, awesome job coloring this son of a bitch and it just looks beautiful.

James also went through and did some blurring effects (when you see the video, you'll know why) and is currently doing two tracking replacements for our own purposes, and then the video is done. It will be mastered out and handed to Universal next week. I'm not sure when I'll be able to post it, as I'm not really sure when the video and single will be released, but you can bet that as soon as I do, I will have it up on here and my site.

My friend Chris is also editing a behind the scenes doc about the making of the video, which will be released the same day.

And now onto the writing I'm procrastinating about. Travis and I have been stuck on page 40 (or our second act turn...we're about 15 pages long right now) for the past week or two. Things got super busy with me and he had this other musical project he's been developing take some precedent, but now I'm finishing up the videos and the musical treatment is off to our manager, and it's time to get back to the script. We tried last night and nothing happened, ha. We just can't seem to get anything done when we get together. So, for now, it looks like we're gonna try and pound out this draft in a completely new way. Basically, Travis and I split up the next couple scenes. When we meet, we'll talk about what should be in them, what direction they should go, and then we'll go off and write our scenes separately, basically like you would in a writers room on a TV show.

But, I keep trying to write and this last minute stuff on these videos keeps distracting me. For instance, I just spent the last couple hours, between when I wrote "TV show" to when I wrote "But, I keep..." watching the new cut of Mateo's video and making notes. We're suppose to deliver today but I'm not sure that's gonna happen. Probably Monday, give us the weekend, because we still need artwork for the DVD menu, etc. And, my guess is, there's some notes on this round that will need to be taken care of. It's remarkable that we're trying to deliver a 45 minute video a week after we shot it.

Of course, normally when you do this, you do a live to tape edit (meaning you cut the video on site, kind of like a live TV show) which you can then go back and adjust later if you need to. However, because of the Canon 5D's, we could shoot this straight through, so we had to cut; and because we only had four cameras, we had to shoot insert shots later; so all this adds up to doing a major edit on this video in not a lot of time. So, delivering today is slightly unrealistic.

However, I realize I was suppose to write about writing, which just isn't gonna happen now. Hopefully I can get some work done on the script tomorrow, or at least over the weekend. But, it's been another mentally exhausting day, and trying to be funny just isn't gonna happen.

However, Travis delivered his treatment for our musical to our manager, who really liked it, thought it was a great start, has notes, etc. So, we'll be meeting with him Tuesday and I hope to have a better idea of where this thing might be going.

Keep you posted. Enjoy your Friday and have a great weekend.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

3Questions: Crawford Appleby - Director of Marketing & Distribution for Senator Entertainment

As part of our continuing 3Questions series, I present Crawford Appleby, a former Director of Marketing & Distribution for Senator Entertainment.

He was responsible for “managing all film delivery for each and every rights deal which was negotiated for each picture on our slate. That means if we sold all home video & cable rights of Film X to Studio A, then I was responsible for negotiating the terms of the delivery schedule and (once those terms were agreed upon) I had to coordinate the physical deliver of Film X to Studio A. That means anything from actual film reels, to actor agreements, to MPAA ratings, to raw sound, to marketing materials, etc. I was also involved in the marketing plans for each of our films, although that was primarily the responsibility of my superiors.”

HBAD: How did you get your start?

CA: I got my start 4 years ago when I was still in college. I knew for a long time that I loved films and I wanted to be involved in their creation. When I was a senior at Boston University, I took advantage of their LA Program, where you live in Los Angeles for a whole semester. I took courses at night and had internships during the day. One of those internships was at a company called Identity Films, which was Seann William Scott's first look deal with Universal, and after I graduated from BU I was asked to come back and be the assistant to the producer there.

After 3 months that company shuttered and the producer went over to Reveille Productions (formerly Ben Silverman's TV production company) to start a new film division and took me with him. I worked there for almost 2 years before Universal dropped the first look deal and Ben sold the company to Liz Murdoch, and the film division disappeared. By that time I had decided that producing films was not for me after all, and wanted to get into independent distribution. I stayed at Reveille for a month working in their legal/sales department, and then I landed a job at Senator as the assistant to the VP of Distribution.

Luckily for me, my boss was really cool and she let me be really involved in her work and I learned a lot about distribution. After 9 months my boss left the company and I was promoted to Director, because they needed someone to manage the plethora of delivery deals that existed for their slate. I did that job for about 5 months before I left to pursue entertainment law.

HBAD: What are the most difficult challenges you've encountered on your career path?

CA: The most difficult challenges I have encountered on my career path were, early on, maintaining a personal life. When I worked at Reveille, the film division consisted of myself, my boss and about 30 projects in development, which means we were both wearing several hats. I was like an executive assistant/story editor/personal assistant. I got to the office at 8am, left between 8 and 10pm and usually did a half day on Saturday. Then I spent most of my Sunday either seeing films or reading scripts. That left very little time for things like doing laundry, washing my car, going to the gym, etc. Since I wanted to stay social, I would go out on Friday and Saturday, attending anywhere from 1 to 3 parties a night. So in other words, for the first 2 years I was out here I was increasingly out of shape, usually unshaven, driving a dirty car, exhausted, and had no real concept of anything happening outside of Hollywood. If, for example, my car had to go to the shop it was a HUGE problem because I had no time to deal with it. When I got my job at Senator I worked more of a 9 to 5 schedule, so my personal life came back again.

HBAD: What advice would you have for someone just starting out in this business, looking to get into distribution?

CA: I actually wrote an article on getting your start in Hollywood, which you can read here. If someone is interested in working in film distribution, you should get some assistant experience (see the article) and then become an assistant to a film distribution executive at a studio or more boutique distribution company. Keep in mind that some smaller distribution companies have a limited mandate (e.g. gay & lesbian cinema, documentaries, etc) so pay careful attention to their past releases when considering where to work. If you don't like a certain type of film, the company you are applying for may or may not work in that realm.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

3Questions: John Poladian - Production Coordinator

As part of our continuing 3Questions series, I present John Poladian, a Production Coordinator for the CW TV show 90210. Prior to joining 90210, John was an assistant production coordinator on the hit series, 24.

His position
"is basically best described as a manager for the working crew. Within my department, I have an Assistant Production Coordinator and three Production Assistants. We help every department within the show with whatever they need. We make sure production runs as smooth as it can be from pre-production to production to wrap. We are basically the heart of the show, without us, the show will die."

HBAD: How did you get your start?

JP: I started in this business by studying Cinema, Television & Arts at California State University of Northridge (CSUN). CSUN was able to get me in the Intern Program and they helped me get an internship with Warner Bros. I interned for a short lived WB show call Maybe It's Me. Once I graduated, I was asked to work for Warner Bros as a production assistant. My first real show was the FOX drama Fastlane. I have worked on various projects for WB, CW, FOX, Nickelodeon and ESPN. My favorite show was working for 24. I was there for 5 years.

HBAD: What are the most difficult challenges you've encountered on your career path?

JP: The most difficult challenges that I've encountered is having to fire production assistants. It never gets easier. The job is not difficult, but some PAs just are not cut out for this business.

Another challenge is the balancing act I have to do between work and my personal life. My job takes anywhere from 12 to 14 hours a day. It's hard to maintain a relationship when you are consumed by your job. I rarely see my family. I try to see them every Sunday, but sometimes that becomes difficult. My girlfriend is still trying to get used to this business. I'm not going to lie. It's not easy. You really have to want to be in this business to make it work. I have seen a lot of people walk away or move back home because they couldn't handle it.

HBAD: What advice would you have for someone just starting out in this business, looking to get into production?

JP: The advice I have for high school & college grads is that they have to remember that it doesn't matter what film school you went to. I've seen so many students who think they are big shits just because they graduated from USC or NYU Film School. Just work hard and do what your boss asks you to do. And do it with a smile. And I think that applies for all jobs. Trust me, people take notice in the hard workers.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Update Where Things Are Happening

I realize the title of this post may have deceived you into thinking that something happened with Glory Days. Not yet. Plenty of people are passing on it though. We had one agent who is terrified of a sports movie in this market. Terrified. This is an agent. Sometimes it's fun to get rejected if only to see what their reasons were. It would be very easy to start getting discouraged at this point, but honestly, I'm so busy with other things, new projects, that whatever, let us know.

It also reminds me of an anecdote I read in some screenwriting book about rejection. Some realtor was having trouble selling a house and getting very discouraged. It had been months since it went on the market.

Her boss asked to her, "How many no's does it take before you get a 'yes' and sell a house?"
She replied, "About fifty, give or take."
"And how many have you gotten?"
"Well, the sooner you get out there and get those no's the sooner you'll get a yes."

Or something like that. Look, the basic idea is that it can take forever to find someone to say yes. You have to earn those rejections in order to get there. So, neither Travis nor I are in any way shape or form getting down and giving up. We're going to keep doing what we can to make things happen. When the time is right, the right person will read it, and we're off. In the meantime, we've got plenty of other things to rock! And things have been happening! Do I have a million in the bank? No. Am I super busy working on several projects that I am getting paid for? Yes. I call that a win.

One of those things, obviously, is the music video for the White and Crazy Kids. We spent last week trying to reconcile some elements that we were unable to shoot during production, and trying to find the best way to deal with it. After exploring a couple different angles, we eventually settled on shooting some additional footage, for the video finale, which would be added in to the cut I had initially put together.

So, now, as of today, I've locked picture on the video (minus the additional footage, which will be shot Weds and edited in on Friday) and tomorrow it goes to my main color corrector, James Cohan, who's done color correct for me on the Ronnie Day Project, the Esfand music video and the Bubba Gump commercial. He's got his work cut out for him...the coloring is the easy part, but he's got to deal with back end issues we learned about after shooting. For instance, if you plan on shooting slow motion footage, you might think that it's smart to shoot 3k (4k will only shoot 24fps) so that you can get the best resolution, right? Wrong. Unfortunately, for some weird reason, Final Cut Pro can't handle 3k footage AND when you bring your 4k footage into color (that is, the Color bundled with FCP 6, I think FCP 7 fixed this issue) it drops it down to 2k anyway. So, it's actually better to keep everything at 2k.

Since we're downsizing all of this to 1080p anyway (since we don't have a film out for a music video) none of this matters, but, rather than taking all the footage and down-rezzing, James has to deal with clips of various sizes. He'll work it out though. He knows his ish.

So, while the picture is off to color, I have a few effects things to work on for it AND...

On Thursday, I'll be producing and directing a "VH1 Storytellers"-like live concert taping for MySpace artist Mateo. Yup, the same guy I directed the mixtape videos for. The video is intended as a DVD release for Mateo's tour this fall.

What makes me even more excited about this is that we'll be shooting it all using the Canon 5D Mark II cameras, a setup I've yet had the pleasure of using. Mateo's manager, Quddus, had sent me a video example of what he was trying to go for. Basically, it was the depth of field, slightly soft focus look that he loved (the video had probably been shot on an HVX with the Red Rock Micro know the look) which really excited me because it meant we could play a little, and not just have a boring multicam shoot. It would be a live to tape show with a distinct visual look, something that I feel always separates you from the pack.

If you're unfamiliar with what the 5D Mark II can do, check out this video.


I've also brought Dan onto this production. We also decided to bring on a DP and through Dan, we managed to get Will Eubank who will be bring his kick-ass 5D with a Panavision mount and Panavision lenses.

It should be an interesting experience and I'm excited to see how it turns out. Other than that, when I'm not directing, Travis and I continue to write. We've got the first act of the new script written (and on page 40! Yikes! Our first draft of Glory Days was 150 pages, so, about par for a comedy from us).

And Travis has been working on an outline for a project that we're developing with our manager. We hope to have something solid on it soon and I can let you know more. But, I'll throw this out there, it's a musical!

Never written one of those before. We'll see how it goes.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Creating the world of "Mad Men"

There's a great article in this month's Vanity Fair about, you guessed it, creating the world of Mad Men. If you don't know what Made Men is...well...I have no idea. I'm writing this late. The point is, you should know about it, it's one of best shows on cable, has won tons of awards and is just damn good television.

Don't subscribe to Vanity Fair? That's okay. They've put it on line for you reading pleasure. Check it out here.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

3Questions: Ben Watkins - Writer for Burn Notice

As part of our continuing 3Questions series, I present Ben Watkins, a writer on Burn Notice, cable's #1 show. Be sure to tune it to the Burn Notice Summer Finale tonight at 9PM on USA.

In addition to Ben Watkins the writer, there is also Benjamin Watkins (actor) and Benjie Watkins (director). He refers to himself as a Hollywood Hybrid. He used to be a regular on The Young and The Restless (Dr. Wesley Carter), and wrote, co-directed and starred in the award winning short film Quest to Ref.

HBAD: How did you get your start?

BW: Well, there's a difference between getting your start and getting your "break." I got my start when I did a play in college. I'd always been interested in acting, but had no intention of pursuing it as a career. But when I did that play, I fell in love. I knew what I was going to do (write and act) and there was never any doubt in my mind after that.

As an actor, I got my break when I was doing theater in Northern California. A director, who became one of my mentors, had connections in New York. He called a friend who turned out to be the Casting Director of "One Life to Live." She said if I was ever in New York, she'd be happy to have me in for a general audition. I thought that meant they might want me on their show. I didn't know a general audition is just a low level meet and greet. My wife was thinking the same thing, so I bought a ticket to New York the next day (sometimes ignorance is your friend).

I got to New York; it was snowing; I had no winter clothes. The Casting Director thought I was crazy to come out to New York for a "general." But after my audition, she turned off the camera and told me to come to her office. Two hours later, I had an agent and a part on One Life to Live. The part turned out to be short lived, but that day launched the "Hollywood" portion of my career.

As a writer, I got my start and my break when I wrote the short film Quest to Ref. Ironically, I made the film to showcase myself as an actor, but it turned into a festival hit, and got the attention of a lot of industry folks. I wrote a feature length version that was eventually optioned by Universal Studios. Then, I wrote a pilot. It didn't sell, but the producer became one of my biggest boosters. He recommended me to an exec at Fox, who sent my stuff to Matt Nix, right around the time Burn Notice was gearing up for its first season. Matt liked my pilot a lot, and hired me onto the show. We're now wrapping up production on our third season.

HBAD: What are the most difficult challenges you've encountered on your career path?

BW: This business is built on one ridiculous challenge after another. In my opinion, there's only one condition that is fatal - losing faith in yourself. I'm not talking about losing confidence. That can come and go. I'm talking about finding yourself in a state of mind where you don't think you're capable of making it. We've all been close to that place. Some of us have made repeat trips there. But the people who settle down there are the ones who never make it.

HBAD: What advice would you have for someone just starting out in this business, looking to become a writer?

BW: BELIEVE. I mean, you have to commit yourself. Do your homework and learn about the business. Then do the business. Don't wait for people to give you anything. But beyond all preparation, knowledge and experience, you must believe you are going to make it. You have to be the person who expects to make it. When disastrous, mind numbing, soul crushing events occur in my life and career, I try to take a step back and remind myself it's just more material for when I do the talk show circuit.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

For All You Webseries Creators Out There...

A good friend of mine, Jeremy Redleaf, creator of the Odd Jobs webseries and website, directed me to the following two articles. If you're into or interested in creating a web series, I would highly recommend you giving them a read.


Confessions of Indie Web Series Creators: Things They Wish They Knew

10 Lessons from A Studio Exec for Web Series Creators

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Director Neill Blomkamp

There's a great article about filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, director of the upcoming District 9, over at I've provided it for you below:


Neill Blomkamp's 'District 9' wins over fanboys and Peter Jackson

by Chris Lee
with additional contributions by Times staff writer Gina McIntyre

In the docu-style, sci-fi thriller "District 9," which arrives in theaters Aug. 14, hundreds of thousands of aliens become stranded in South Africa after their massive spaceship comes to a standstill above downtown Johannesburg. Unable to fix the craft, this massive population of tentacle-waving, exoskeleton-sheathed aliens eventually outstays its welcome; they become reviled by humans for burdening the country's welfare system even though all they really want to do is go home. Corralled into District 9 -- a rubbish-strewn refugee camp that calls to mind Mumbai's septic squalor, captured to striking effect in "Slumdog Millionaire" -- they are segregated from the general populace by barbed wire. There, the film's sentient yet excitable aliens are denied such basic necessities as running water and are denigrated by native earthlings as "prawns" for their resemblance to Sasquatch-sized shellfish. Given the film's real-life setting amid Soweto's teeming townships and its segregationist signage -- "For humans only! Non-humans banned!" read placards in the movie -- it's impossible not to correlate the aliens' predicament with recent South African history. And that's no accident. Call "District 9" the world's first autobiographical alien apartheid movie.

Writer-director Neill Blomkamp grew up in Johannesburg during an era of white minority rule; later, memories of the apartheid government's social divisiveness and authoritarian control became "the most powerful influence" in shaping his creative vision.

"It all had a huge impact on me: the white government and the paramilitary police -- the oppressive, iron-fisted military environment," Blomkamp said over breakfast recently in a Santa Monica hotel. He appeared boyish, fresh-faced in jeans and a button-down shirt, his hair spiky with product, while exuding a preternatural sense of focus. "Blacks, for the most part, were kept separate from whites. And where there was overlap, there were very clearly delineated hierarchies of where people were allowed to go."

He continued: "Those ideas wound up in every pixel in 'District 9.' "

Arriving as one of the hottest properties at San Diego's recent Comic-Con, the movie wowed its fanboy premiere audience and set the TweetDeck alight with reports that "District 9" is the real deal: one of the most original sci-fi films to come along in years.

It should boggle the imagination of anyone who sees the movie to discover, then, that for all its narrative assuredness and engrossing neo-realism, "District 9" is the debut feature of a director who has not yet reached the tender age of 30. Moreover, despite showcasing more than 600 computer-enhanced shots of bizarro aliens, high-tech weaponry and crazy spaceship blastoffs -- much of it shot in cinéma vérité-style that one-ups last year's "Cloverfield" -- Blomkamp, 29, managed to shoot "District 9" on a modest $30-million budget.

Those merits aside, however, Sony's decision to roll out the film in the midst of summer's ultracompetitive movie lineup boils down to three words attached to "District 9": "Peter Jackson presents." Jackson, the Oscar-winning writer-director behind the blockbuster "Lord of the Rings" franchise, was key in actualizing Blomkamp's vision for "District 9," producing the film, arranging its independent financing and helping Blomkamp iron out kinks in the script.

"He saw South African society -- both the good and bad of the society there -- and he wanted to put a science fiction spin on what he witnessed growing up because he's a science fiction geek," said Jackson, who had traveled from New Zealand to Comic-Con primarily to sing Blomkamp's praises. "I really like the idea that here was a guy who was making a movie based on life experience, not just on some movie that he was a fan of. 'District 9' is not reflective of any movie that I can imagine. It's really very original, which I love about it, and that's totally Neill."

'Halo' effect

But before there was a "District 9," Blomkamp was attached to "Halo," a planned $145-million movie adaptation of the popular space age shoot-'em-up video game of the same name. In 2005, Jackson signed on to write the script for what would have been a joint production between 20th Century Fox and Universal, also serving as its producer with the intention of hiring "someone young and new" to direct.

Universal's production chief at that time, Mary Parent, was in charge of vetting filmmakers for the project and presented Blomkamp's show reel to Jackson. It included a six-minute short film, "Alive in Joburg" -- a mockumentary depicting space alien refugees living in segregation in a South African township.

Blomkamp landed the job and pulled up stakes from his home in Vancouver, Canada, to move to New Zealand and set to work at Jackson's production facility, Weta Workshop. "He was just what we were after," Jackson said, "one of these guys who lives and breathes film."

The "Halo" assignment represented the culmination of more than a decade of work for Blomkamp, who heeded his professional calling at an age when most kids are still breaking in baseball mitts. "When I was 14 or 15, I got into 3-D animation on the computer my parents bought me," he said. "I was toying with practical effects. Prosthetics and in-camera effects. Models and photography. I knew I wanted to be involved in all that."

His family relocated to Vancouver when Blomkamp was 18. He enrolled in Vancouver Film School. And after working as an effects artist for a production company and shooting music videos for local bands, he moved into directing TV commercials.

Blomkamp continued to shoot special effects-heavy short films during his off-hours, though, funneling around 40% of his yearly earnings toward paying for them. And after being featured at the Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors Showcase in Cannes in 2004, he decided to break into Hollywood, resulting almost immediately in a fortuitous business union: Blomkamp landed one of Hollywood's preeminent dealmakers, agent Ari Emanuel, to represent him.

But after months of preproduction on "Halo," the project fell apart. "I don't know the specifics -- it was Universal and Fox duking it out," Blomkamp said. (Published reports said Fox and Universal backed out after unsuccessfully trying to renegotiate profit-sharing terms with producers, including Jackson and Halo's manufacturer, Microsoft Corp.)

Blomkamp added: "I put a hell of a lot of effort into that. We had done five months of design and early manufacturing of the soldiers' outfits, the vehicles. Hundreds of people were employed. The upsetting part is when you've done a lot of work and it gets swept under the rug."

A powerful suggestion

Blomkamp was ready to go home in defeat when a brief conversation with Jackson's partner and frequent collaborator, Fran Walsh, changed the course of Blomkamp's career. Her suggestion to him: "Why don't you stay and work on something with a sci-fi twist? Something that represents you."

"She had the idea to turn 'Alive in Joburg' into a feature," recalled Blomkamp, who lighted up at the memory. "I was like, 'That's awesome!' "

Jackson seized on the idea of putting together a "true independent film" financed outside the studio system. "The very next day, all the artists switched from 'Halo' to 'District 9,' which, we didn't have a name for it at that stage," Jackson said. "We basically supported Neill. We didn't have a studio involved so we funded the development of the movie ourselves."

With his writing partner Terri Tatchell, Blomkamp began drafting the screenplay in 2007. Grappling with the larger social commentary about apartheid and minority rule he wanted to make, however, Blomkamp worried the film would become too serious and oppressive and that it "wouldn't be entertaining on a popcorn level." He tacked the word "SATIRE" in giant letters to his office wall as a kind of working manifesto, to deflate his potentially grandiose sense of self-importance as a filmmaker and remind himself that he was creating entertainment. "I realized I could take all the ideas I had and have them make fun of themselves," Blomkamp said. "At the same time, I could address all of the stuff I wanted to get in there."

He kept costs down, in part, by casting his childhood friend and frequent collaborator Sharlto Copley -- a writer-director-producer with limited experience in front of the camera -- in the film's lead role. He portrays Wikus van der Merwe, a bumbling field operative for MNU, a giant corporate conglomerate that wants to relocate the aliens from their shanties to a newly built extraterrestrial ghetto. When the character accidentally contaminates himself with a mysterious alien biological fluid during an MNU sweep, however, his life unravels and his allegiances shift. As such, Wikus finds himself an unlikely catalyst for non-human revolt.

As well, Blomkamp eliminated expensive research and development costs by relying on his technical virtuosity as a visual-effects director. "A hard-shell insect surface on an alien is going to give you a better result than a jellyfish surface," he explained. "My stuff tends to be [computer generated] in some very harsh sunlight. Harsh shadows. Sometimes it's easier to make stuff look real in that environment."

But in mid-2008, as filming commenced in one of Soweto's poorest neighborhoods, reality intervened. "As we started shooting, we woke up to smoke on the horizon with army choppers," Blomkamp said. "South African groups had started to lynch and burn and machete these other groups. Mass murder was happening within a few kilometers of us!"

A decade of animosity between Zimbabwean refugees and impoverished South African blacks had boiled over into rioting, Blomkamp noted, at the moment his movie partially inspired by the same phenomenon, what he terms "black on black xenophobia," was finally taking form.

"We were making a film about the most serious topic in Southern Africa but it was a satirical film," he said. "Obviously, we were afraid. I felt like I was stomping around like some uncoordinated, goofy, first-time filmmaker wrestling with a topic that was now highly, highly serious."

Copley, who has known Blomkamp since the director was 14, says Blomkamp stayed cool while the pressure ratcheted up around him. He channeled that heightened sense of consequence into what appears on the screen in "District 9."

"He flows with things more than anybody I have worked with and gets what he needs out of a situation," Copley said. "It's really something to see. Here's a guy who has an incredible artist head space. And he's following his emotions into it."

Blomkamp said he plans to follow up "District 9" with another sci-fi project he describes as "seriously kick-ass." But also in the offing is another project the writer-director plans to self-finance with whatever revenue he reaps from his feature debut -- a self-preservation measure you could attribute to his hard-learned lessons on "Halo."

"It's really out there. I have to set it up with my own cash," said Blomkamp, grinning at the thought. "It won't take tens of millions of dollars to make it work. I just have to be in control of it so it can be as ridiculous as it needs to be."

Monday, August 3, 2009

Sunday Night Scramble

15% uploaded...

It's 2:00 AM Monday morning and I'm waiting for my cut of the music video to upload so I can send it along to everybody to check out. It's very hot in my office because it's 1) hot to begin with in the valley and 2) I've got two computers running in here, one of them a Mac Intel tower, plus a couple hard drives, processing my footage. I had originally intended to have this sent out much earlier but weekend plans and chores got in the way.

I had also really planned to do some rewriting on the new script but didn't get a chance. However, since this video is being reviewed tomorrow, I can probably get half a day to get some work done. This blog post is my last thing before turning in for the night.

Saturday night, W&CK's manager came by to check out the video. I had sent a new edit to Luke and Randall an hour or so before, but Steve was in the area and came by. Having looked at it, and speaking with the website designer who was with him, we talked about what I already knew, that we need some bells and whistles added to this thing to take it to the next level.


My cut wasn't totally done, so I decided to spend tonight finishing everything up. There's a section towards the end that we may add to with something (can't give it away) but other than that, I put together a completed cut. Spent most of today and tonight trying to get it done.

Right now, there is some question among the creative team whether we're just having someone come in and After Effect it up, or having some literally come in and start from scratch. While I think it may be interesting, having someone cut from scratch is something that should have been decided a while ago. As of Tuesday, we have two weeks to deliver the cut, and if we're gonna have people working on effects shots, plus the coloring, we need all the time we can get, and I don't think we should pay for or waste time having someone recut it from scratch, especially because everyone likes the cut I've put together. It just needs some flair to it, that's all.

So, I'm hoping to figure all this out tomorrow. Doing these effects however, might create a workflow nightmare, and we need to get everyone together to figure out the best way to go about it.


Initially, I have to admit, when I was discuss the next steps with Luke and Randall, I felt like I was being pushed out of the way. It felt like, "Hey, you've done a great job, but now we're gonna take it and push it to the next level." And, I was a little upset. I don't want to just hand it over. I want to be involved every step of the way. I'm not going to sit back and just let someone mess with what I've done, I want to collaborate and get the best possible video.

But, a part of me is also kind of like, "F*ck it...they paid for it...they can do whatever they want with it." So, I've kind of settled down, even though I don't think it's at all what I wrote above. We're all in agreement on taking this video beyond where it's just question of how, and that's something that we need to figure out.


So, hopefully that will happen tomorrow and we can start moving into effect work this week, and deliver the picture lock to James by the 12th so that he can color correct and master for us.

As I mentioned, I'm sending everyone the cut tonight, so they can look it over tomorrow. Hopefully everyone is solid on it, and we then go about working on the effects.