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Michael Guillén: I'm impressed with the Idaho Film Office's Film Grant Program, which distributes $30,000 annually to enable projects that "will provide valuable on-the-job crew training to help grow the industry in Idaho." As one of their most recent grant recipients, could you speak about your project, how you're applying the $5,000 grant, and when we might expect to see the finished product?
Andrew Ellis: The project is named Honor Among Thieves and it is a script that was written by my long-time collaborator and the typical writer of my scripts, Will Schmeckpeper. It's an interesting and unique process for us in creating the project because typically Will is pretty concrete in his thinking. He usually has a pretty good idea of the story he wants to write and we don't do major tinkering with the scripts in the rewriting process, but this film he wrote was initially set in a remote cabin that we had access to up in McCall and it was really more an idea around claustrophobia and the pressure that can happen to a group of thieves after they've already stolen the goods and they're waiting a short period of time to deliver the goods to the fence, as it were.
The script evolved, and the basic premise remained the same, although—for ease of shooting purposes and other reasons—we decided to reset it into an urban environment. We set it in Boise just so we wouldn't have to travel and take a group of people on location for the length of time. We also didn't like the initial ending and we couldn't quite figure out what it was about. When we figured out the ending, it changed it such that it was more beneficial to be set in an urban area. So the script has really changed and added characters as we've gone along.
Then—as is always the case when you're shooting for next to no money; you're doing it on the kindness of your friends and family and people who agree to be in the thing for you—we had built the script around one of the major characters, a friend of our's who has acted in a number of our films, and he had a health scare and felt that he wasn't going to be able to perform. So we did a quick turnaround and reinvited a friend of our's who we met two summers ago, an actress by the name of Calico Cooper.
Guillén: Ah, your lead actress from Thirty Proof Coil (2010)?
Ellis: Yeah, and she has the distinction of being Alice Cooper's daughter. We called her up on a whim and said, "Hey, would you be able to come up and play this role if we made it happen in just one weekend?" She said, "Yeah, I can. That weekend works great." So there was another round of rewrites to accommodate what had been a character who was male in their mid-50s to mid-60s, to suddenly now being a female in her mid-20s. That took the script into a completely different direction.
But to answer your initial question about applying for the grant, it's a pretty straightforward process. You submit a script or a premise and judging from the feedback we received back from the Idaho Film Office, I think that the characteristic of the project that they ended up approving was that they wanted some sense of security that there was a foundation under the project and that the project would actually get shot. Given our track record over the past 10 years of actually getting projects shot and being able to provide a list of the cast and crew who would be on board to help shoot it and a detailed shot list and shooting schedule—which we were able to do because we had it all plotted out—it inspired confidence on their part that Honor Among Thieves was a going concern and would actually get done.
Guillén: Were you seeking seed money for any particular aspect of the production?
Ellis: Will and I have gotten into the habit of shooting feature films for next to nothing.
Guillén: And very fast! You shot Thirty Proof Coil in six days?
Ellis: We shot it in six days for a total of $5,000. What that represents, of course, is a complete volunteer cast and crew, and a tremendous amount of in-kind donations from people who are supporting us. So I guess our dirty little secret is that we could have shot Honor Among Thieves on that model without grant support; but, the reason I applied for the grant was because the purpose of the grant—as I understand it—is workforce development. What Will and I have consciously or unconsciously done for the last 10 years has been pretty involved in workforce development, in that we try to do a lot of projects and we try to involve as many people as we can, both experienced and inexperienced and give them an actual opportunity to—not just talk about making a movie—but, make a movie. I felt honest and still feel honest in applying for the grant—not necessarily because I needed it to get the project done—but, it did allow us the opportunity to pay people and that was something we haven't been able to do before.
Guillén: That's an admirable direction to go in.
Ellis: Yeah, and I think it's important for our film scene that people can start to expect to get paid something, if not much.
Guillén: I like your term "workforce development" as it clearly articulates the incentives of the Idaho Film Office with its focus on local production, which—as someone who comes from an exhibition and film festival background—is not as familiar a focus for me. My attention has been more on after the work has been done. In that respect, do you have any thoughts on exhibition with regard to Idaho's film culture? Once films have been made in Idaho, what's next? Where can they be shown? How can they distribute out of state?
Ellis: That's the billion dollar question, I guess. I am actually quite excited by the emergence of the Sun Valley Film Festival because we have seen festivals come and go in Boise and within the State. Film festivals have been valuable for me as a filmmaker as an exhibition option. My option now for a public screening is to rent a theater, publicize it, hit the pavement and get as many people as we can. Depending upon whether we are harboring distribution dreams or not, we either offer DVDs for sale at these events or not. I think having film festivals is a critical piece in getting your work seen by the local community and, hopefully, by people from out of town, primarily in festivals where filmmakers are coming in support of their own films. This is an opportunity to show your films to other filmmakers who have their films in the festival. Until recently, there was a five-year run of the True West Festival. Then there was a seven-year run of the Idaho International Film Festival (IIFF).
Guillén: Bruce Fletcher invited me to IIFF in 2007.
Ellis: The post-Bruce organization makes murmurs now and then that they're coming back. I don't know if they're coming back or not; but, it was an important piece in my thinking and, of course, in our process to have those festivals in town. We would gear our production so that we could submit to either True West or the Idaho International.
Guillén: Which leads me to your administration of the i48 and h48 film festivals, which I consider grass roots exhibition efforts. Is i48 a franchised offshoot from the 48 Hour Film Project?
Ellis: It's not. There are 48 hour competitions all over the place. 10 to 12 years ago, or more, the 48 Hour Film Project started in Washington, D.C., I believe. They have franchised so that there are, last I checked, 70 or 80 cities around the country that participate in the 48 Hour Film Project. I freely acknowledge that I lifted the concept from them wholesale and we have always been upfront in all of our publicity.
Guillén: There's never been an issue with that?
Ellis: No. They have contacted us the last two or three years to see if we would be interested in participating in their organization and doing i48 as a franchise and every year I've sent them a kind letter saying, "Thanks, but no thanks." The idea being local control. Why local control is important to me and what I like about it is the accessibility of i48. i48 makes its bread and butter from being something that someone anywhere can do. We've had families with a camcorder participate. We've had groups of middle school kids. We've had church groups. We've had utter beginners participate and they're supported by i48. My primary concern if we join up with the 48 Hour Film Project is that the broader national and international group might make locals folks less inclined to participate if they felt there was a larger external pressure. If you win here, you would be screened in Portland and thrown into a pot. It then becomes a different creature that's maybe more about winning the competition rather than just about participating in it. For me it's very important to nurture and foster a sense of i48 being something that's just valuable and fun to do as a community.
Guillén: How many years has i48 been going?
Ellis: This will be year number nine. It is identical in many aspects to what the 48 Hour Film Project folks do. You have 48 hours to make a film and we give you certain aspects of the film that you don't know in advance. Everybody gathers on Friday afternoon. They get a packet where they're given a character, a line of dialogue, the genre of their film, and then we give them a prop that they have to use and then they have 48 hours to write a story, shoot a story, edit a story and turn it into us.
Guillén: And there are cash prizes for the winners? Where do those funds come from?
Ellis: Those of us on the organizational side spend all year raising the money for the cash prizes from various organizations in town that are supportive of us. The last two or three years we've gotten that money from the Boise Co-Op. Unfortunately, we didn't get it from them this year because of new management. They're restructuring and trying to figure out their role in philanthropy in the community. It's been explained to me that they're trying to figure out what their place in this community is going to be with the opening of Whole Foods so they're regrouping a bit. But we've received support from the Idaho Film Office and private individuals.
Guillén: I take it i48 is a nonprofit?
Ellis: Yes, it is.
Guillén: And since one of the main objectives of a nonprofit is to secure donations, why would you say it's important to support i48?
Ellis: Well, there are two divisions in the competition. There is what we call the open division, which are self-categorizing. If you have made a film before or have made many films or are in the industry or do this for work, we encourage you to go into the open division. Then there is the novice category, which is for people who have done little to no film work before. There are cash prizes awarded to the top two films in both categories. It's $1,000 to the winner of the open category and $500 to the second, and then for the novice it's $500 for the winner and $250 for the second place. Then we have 22 awards that are granted in total and those include recognition for best cinematography, best sound and music, best actor and actress.
Guillén: How are the winners determined?
Ellis: In a very unscientific process. Every film that's finished on time—you have to finish it within the 48 hours to be considered for awards—are then grouped into packs of 12 or 15 films and over the course of the week between the time of the competition and the time of the screening, every film goes through a preliminary round of screenings watched by judges who are a lot of friends of mine that I recruit. They don't have to have any film experience. They're just members of the community. They are tasked with watching all of the films in their block, which are essentially given a thumbs up or a thumbs down. They're not choosing specific awards, they're just saying, "Does this film deserve to go on to the final judging?" So we send every film through a preliminary round of screening, which historically has reduced the number of films by about 50%.
Then all the remaining films are watched in one fell swoop by a finals judging committee. For that committee I tend to recruit folks who have some film experience. It's a committee that ranges anywhere from 9 people to I think it's gone as high as 15. They watch everything in one sitting. They have ballots and in each award category they simply list their top three. Those are then assigned numeric values and then we take the ballots, tally them up, and whoever receives the most points in a category wins.
Guillén: And then there's h48. What prompted you to narrow down the competition to a specific genre?
Ellis: The first two years we did i48, we threw horror in the mix as a genre that teams could do. I was convinced at the end of those two years by friends and feedback that it was an unfair disadvantage to give teams the horror genre in i48 because we do have a PG requirement and, as people said, trying to do a horror film and be nice about it with no gore, no nudity, no swearing, none of the usual characteristics of a horror film really, gutted your ability to do one. Ironically, in year two a horror film won the competition even within those parameters. They did a suspense psychological thing that was visually fascinating. It was technically horrific but really just more suspenseful than anything else. But, I was convinced and I took the horror genre out of the mix, which then prompted six years of people saying, "Why did you do away with horror?" So that was that feedback.
The other thing is that a lot of people who participate are friends or acquaintances of mine so they're pretty frank in their feedback to me and they said, "Y'know, it really hampers our artistic vision a great deal to have this cursed PG restriction. We just want to cut loose and swear. We just want to cut loose and be as dirty as we want to be" and I thought, "Sorry. It's important to me that the festival be accessible to anyone and be something that anyone can come watch with their children within range." But it did get me thinking and so I thought, "I'm going to do an i48 that takes the restrictions off." It made most sense to us to do it around Halloween and to do it as a horror-themed festival. So h48 was born from that.
Guillén: Your first edition of h48 was last October?
Guillén: Is it under the same nonprofit umbrella?
Ellis: It is.
Guillén: I'm not aware of any other 48 hour project that focuses exclusively on horror? That's intriguing.
Ellis: I don't know either. We had a great run.
Guillén: And does h48 have the same prize structure as i48?
Ellis: We had awards for best film, best scream queen, best bad guy and best special effects / gore.
Guillén: As i48 leans into its ninth edition and approaches its tenth, have you given any thought to mounting a "Best of i48" fest?
Ellis: It's like you're inside my head. Yes, I've spoken with the other organizers about this prospect and I have thought about our needing to have an additional evening to celebrate our tenth.
Guillén: And, possibly, you could travel with a program like that?
Ellis: I haven't sat down to watch the winners of the last eight years in a row. I think what you would see is an amazing progression of basic technical talent. What remains universal is the storytelling.
Guillén: I think if you presented it in exactly that context, it could prove to be a fascinating study of the effect of better, more affordable, more accessible cameras in telling universal stories.
Guillén: Switching to the speculative: do you believe there is a film community in Idaho? And if not, how can we create one?
Ellis: I would say yes and no. You've touched upon what I find to be the most fascinating part of all of this. I like to make films because it is one of the most fun and pleasurable ways that I know to recreate with my friends. I don't identify myself as a filmmaker. It's not part of my identity. What I do identify myself as—both in my day job and my filmmaking pursuits and with i48 and h48—is I do view myself as a community builder. At the end of the day I'm far more proud of my contributions to building a community than necessarily the films that I have made. I'm proud of them too, but I feel that my time on Earth will be valuable not necessarily for the films I leave behind but because of the connections that were made and the community we've built. It's been a passion of mine.
I say yes and no because—when I moved back to Boise in 2001—I arrived with a theater background. It was at the time when digital technology was just starting. You could make a film on a little Sony digital 8 camera you could buy for $300-$400. You could pop it into your PC on a rudimentary nonlinear editor and actually for the first time in my life make a movie without having to shoot on film or go to a community TV station and edit on their big editing suites. I was incredibly excited by it all and wanted to learn more; but, I had no training, no background, nothing. I had a theater background but no film background. So when I came back to Boise, I wanted to plug into the film community, having the analogy of the theater community, which—prior to my moving away—I had been plugged into. I knew a lot of the people in the theater community. I foolishly assumed the same thing existed for film. I learned pretty quickly that there wasn't. So what I did was to start inviting every person I bumped into who was an aspiring filmmaker or film enthusiast over to my house once a month. We would have these gatherings where we would show our films to each other.
Guillén: Was this Small Pond?
Guillén: So you started Small Pond as well?
Ellis: Yeah. Those monthly gatherings turned into Small Pond. Although I don't say this with too much nostalgia, there was a brief utopian period from about 2003 to 2006 when Small Pond was at its most vibrant. Quite frankly, none of us knew anything and so there was a necessity to depend upon each other. The community was very small. At that time, I would say there was a community. If you talked to someone randomly about, "Hey, I want to get involved in film", they would say, "Well, you ought to go to a Small Pond meeting." For a time I really felt there was a sense of community where people where helping each other out with their projects, knew about each others' projects, and there was a "one for all, all for one" spirit.
Small Pond, in a way, was a victim of its own success. Things grew up. The film industry—through a lot of the efforts of the Film Office—became more of a possibility here. The Idaho Media Professionals formed. A lot of professionals had moved into town and were living here but hadn't made their presence known. So the scene matured considerably and I don't think that it's ever stopped maturing.
I remember when I got here in 2001, they were shooting a film called Tattoo, A Love Story. Though David Klein, the cinematographer, didn't live here, he was a local kid who had gone on to become Kevin Smith's go-to cinematographer. After shooting Clerks (1994), he became a household name in the industry. So he came back to Boise to shoot Tattoo, A Love Story with a consortium of filmmakers [Gen Art] who were based in New York City. They came into town and their budget was $400,000-$500,000, which was pretty considerable, particularly at that time, and they shot it on 16mm. They used a lot of local actors. It's a well-done film. You can watch it on Netflix. They finished it and they came back and screened it at The Egyptian. They had two screenings, both of which sold out. There were lines around the block. I went to one of the screenings thinking it was some little thing that only I knew about and it ended up everybody knew about it. In 2001-2003 Tattoo, A Love Story was the only feature film shot in this town and it was an event for this town. By my count, 8-10 feature films got shot in Boise last year.
Guillén: You mentioned that Small Pond was a victim of its own success. For lack of a better term, why did it subtropify?
Ellis: You mean why did it die?
Ellis: Two things killed Small Pond. One was YouTube. When we started, YouTube didn't exist and so—if you wanted to screen something and have people see it—you needed to have a venue. Filmmakers came and supported Small Pond because they wanted to be able to see their films and have people watch them. Once YouTube became a pervasive part of the culture, you could almost see the plunge in attendance at Small Pond because the idea of being able to share whatever you might want by simply posting it online took over.
Secondly, our message board killed us. The message board was a good idea in the sense that it was an easy way for people to continue the networking and talking to each other; but, it also became too easy for people to start sniping at each other. It became toxic and, unfortunately, alienated a lot of people. We had a group of 40-50 people who were pretty heavily involved and went to all the screenings and met each other. It was a sizeable group of spectators who skirted around the edges and read the message board. When the message board took a toxic turn, we lost all those people.
Guillén: So to wrap up here, what is your vision of a filmmaking community in Boise, Idaho?
Ellis: For the last 10 years, I have been proclaiming, mostly to empty walls....
Guillén: They listen the best.
Ellis: ...about my vision of the role of filmmaking as an art form in the community and that it could—with the advent of affordable digital technology—be something that is as much a fabric of our local artistic life as pretty much every other art form. Boise has a vibrant community theater scene—people will put on a show and folks will come and watch it—and obviously we have the orchestra and the opera, and if you want to watch live music you can do so any night of the week at some bars in town. So there already is this acceptance of locals doing art in the visual arts, music and dance, opera and community theater. What there hasn't been is an acceptance or an audience for locally-produced cinema. The truth is that—prior to 15 years ago—filmmaking was too prohibitively expensive so the studios had to do it for us because we couldn't really produce much locally. My opinion now is that there is this explosion of locally-produced cinema and anyone with a few nickles and some initiative can make a film. So we really need to position local filmmaking in general as something that is a part of the local fabric; something that people will go out and support.
The problem with audience building is, as you've indicated, a lack of exhibition. The option, as I mentioned earlier, if you want to have your film screened is to go to independent venues like The Egyptian or The Flicks—we're totally dead-ended by chains like Edwards—and ask, "Will you allow us to rent this space?" It's frequently cost-prohibitive. It costs $1,500 a pop to rent The Egyptian and Carole Skinner at The Flicks has always been supportive but she's got to make a buck too so it costs $400-$500 to rent a screening room. Now that she's gone all digital, maybe we can get one of her smaller screening rooms at a more affordable rate?