Film - Sisters

Premiere

Good evening!

In my last post I promised to tell you all about my new film, the premiere and the lives we lead at NYU Tisch Grad Film.

Over the past few months most of the content on my blog has revolved around my film “Sisters” — the film that was a beast to shoot because of all kinds of challenges, and a beast to finish because I lost my apartment and traveled to South Dakota to guest speak in the middle of the post-production.

However, all long nights and endless days aside, I crossed the finish line just in time. But before we get to that, let me tell you about the glamour of film school.


Screenshot from “Sisters”: Cinematography by Kai Torres.

I used to take pride in never pulling all-nighters in college. In fact, a good chunk of my honor was anchored in my ability to finish my homework before 7 PM most nights and to keep Saturdays completely off. I was that girl who always showed up to class wide awake and rested after eight hours of sleep and a six-mile run before breakfast.

That, however, has not been the case this semester. Or this past year, for that matter.

Inside the NYU Grad film classrooms you’ll frequently hear professors, students and alumni compare the program to Medical school, the Army and training for the Olympics. If you’ve read the blog for a while, you know that I’m not exaggerating — it’s not uncommon for us to spend 14-16 hours at school every day. We don’t get weekends, spring break or fall break, but in turn we get to do what we love all day, every day. I think it’s a good deal.

Screenshot from “Sisters”: Cinematography by Kai Torres. Starring the talented Willow Eve (left) and Lily Brooks O’Briant (right).

Those past couple weeks before our short films (aka Spring Narratives) were due, I was in the editing lab until 6 AM night after night. You’d think that’s the behavior of eccentric lone wolves, but the strangest part is that I was surrounded by my classmates the whole time.

Some left the lab in tears, but came back determined to stick it through only a few moments later. Others left with stomachs growling so loudly it could be heard through people’s headphones (me), and returned with some low-quality food from a vending-machine to keep them going (also me).

We were all in this together.


In the editing lab: Baseball caps are great when you don’t have time to take care of your hair… Photo: Kai Torres.

The thrill of seeing what began as an idea in your head come to life, mixed with the nauseating feeling of discovering that you missed an essential shot, and that your whole film will likely suck because of your complete incompetence is just one part of the editing experience. When hours of frantic editing, mixing, tricking and cheating pays off in the form of something that at least resembles what you had in mind, you’re no longer questioning your decision to become a filmmaker, and you start to get excited about the premiere that happens to be three weeks earlier than you’d like. You may have a somewhat coherent film to show on the screen that day, after all. It may even be decently good, who knows?

Then you pack your things and call it a day … or night, depending on which timezone you’ve chosen to identify with. You walk through the relatively empty streets of Manhattan and realize you haven’t had dinner yet. It’s 6:15 AM, and it’s too early for breakfast, and quite frankly, you don’t have enough money for dinner anyway, so breakfast it is.

The next morning you go back, exchange a few encouraging words with your classmates, plug in your hard-drive and do it all over again; until the premiere is so close you can feel it in your veins.


Screenshot from “Sisters”: Cinematography by Kai Torres.

The day is there and together with a full auditorium, you get to see what all your classmates have worked on since January. Their powerful voices expressed through stunning visuals on the screen, the pulsating reactions from the audience, and the nerve-wracking, yet exhilarating feeling of suddenly seeing your own film on that same screen. Up there, with all these talented humans you’re lucky enough to call your friends.

It was a success.


Screenshot from “Sisters”: Cinematography by Kai Torres. With the star, Lily Brooks O’Briant.

Even if I’m not 100% happy with my film, I’m a 100% happy with what I learned and the relations I gained during the process. My two movie stars, Lily Brooks and Willow did an amazing job, and I could not be happier with their work. Watch out for their names; they both have very bright futures ahead of them.

I’m still deciding on what will happen with this film next. I might want to apply to a few festivals, but we’ll see what my budget permits.


Screenshot from “Sisters”: Cinematography by Kai Torres.

I was going to tell you about the experience that almost turned me into a real New Yorker; it’s honestly so ridiculous that I wasn’t even sure I wanted to tell you, but I like to keep promises, so stay tuned for my next post. Like I said, you don’t want to miss it.

Blessings,
Maria

It’s a wrap!

Good evening, dear readers!

I know it may have seemed like I just disappeared from the world for a while: my social media accounts have remained untouched for almost a month, and I don’t even want to think about all the birthdays and events I’ve missed, the dozen Skype-calls I’ve promised to make and the postcards I haven’t responded to. I used to take pride in replying to texts within 10 minutes, but life in film school has forced me to take pride in other things instead — there’s simply not enough hours in a day to be on top of everything. Thankfully I have friends who understand.

Since last time, I’ve spent nearly a month out and about on film sets, crewing on my classmates’ films and–just now–shooting my very own short film. Read more HERE.

Behind the scenes: Here with the talented Lily Brooks O’Briant and Willow Eve. (Lily Brooks just won the award for Best Actress at the First Run Film Festival, and landed a recurring role in Amazon’s new big series THE TICK. Remember the name) Photo: Cinematographer Kai Torres.

As I may have told you already: Our class of 36 was split into groups of six and during the course of a month we’ll all direct the film we wrote and produced earlier this year. Each of us get a maximum of three days to shoot our films.

So far we’ve done two shoots in the lovely neighborhood of Ditmas Park in Brooklyn, one shoot in Upstate New York, another one in Staten Island, a 3-day overnight shoot in Lynbrook, and before we wrap up this year’s production period we’ll shoot one on Manhattan.

I’ve already told you about the preparations for my film; the intense location scouting in crazy traffic and the never-ending rounds of auditions, but I now have the tremendous pleasure of telling you that the production part is done!

Behind the scenes: Here with Willow Eve, who impressed everyone with her unflinching stamina in the tough conditions. This girl has a bright future on the screen. Photo: Kai Torres.

Director Kathryn Bigelow once said that “there’s nothing easy about shooting” … and I must say that I agree.

The fact that I got knocked out by a fever two days before didn’t help, or that half my crew felt sick on the first day of my shoot, or that 75% of all my background actors never showed up because they “had a death in the family”, or that it was so cold on set that I at one point actually thought we’d have to cancel the whole thing … None of that made it any less hard.


Photo: Kai Torres.

But, thanks to God’s grace, the amazing effort of my hardcore crew, the resilient and extremely talented actors and the steadfast discipline from the assistant director, Joe, we were able to complete the shoot — a full day earlier than planned.


Behind the scenes: Here with AD Joe, DP Kai, Sound Narine and parts of the cast. Photo: Mate Vincze.

We actually ended up getting two days worth of shots during that last day, so I’m more than happy and impressed by everybody’s work.

Behind the scenes: Willow Eve, Lily Brooks O’Briant, AC Mate Vincze and DP Kai Torres.

The rush of working under this kind of pressure, and seeing that things start to flow, and your vision comes to life — beautifully — must be one of the most satisfying things a human can experience. I had so much fun that I’m already looking forward to next time. I just now realized I might need to write a separate post about “directing as an experience” … because that’s what it is; an experience.

End of day 1: When you’re tired, have a cold and you’re struggling to breathe because the location is normally a cat-ghetto and you have a severe case of allergies towards those furry creatures, but you’re very happy things went well. Here with cinematographer Kai Torres and the amazing Melanie Little!

A sunburned, windburned and happy trio. We did it!

A very special thanks to the cast:
Lily Brooks O’Briant as ELIZABETH.
Willow Eve as CHRISTINE.
Melanie Little as MOM.
Chynna Holder as BRIANNA.
Ava Lattimore as SOCCER PLAYER.
Ellen Zheng as SOCCER PLAYER.
Sofia Espinal as SOCCER PLAYER.
Alex Wright as CLASSMATE.
Madeline Hettrick as CLASSMATE.
Arielle Nickerson as CLASSMATE.
All the parents, Hope O’Briant & Alison Humphries.

And the crew:
Co-producer and cinematographer — Kai Torres.
1st Assistant director — Joseph Longo.
2nd Assistand director, set dresser and gaffer — Drake Burnette.
Assistant Camera — Mate Vincze.
Sound mixer — Narine Sargsyan.

+ the NYU Tisch Faculty.

Now awaits a month of post-production editing. I do not expect things to get any less busy, but it’s funny how working on set for weeks makes you hungry for the calm of the editing room. I’ll do my very best to keep you posted along the way.

Here’s a screenshot for ya:

Have a blessed evening,
Maria

 

 

Breathing Tisch

Good evening!

I just wanted to stop by for a second before I allow myself the two-hour “weekend” I’ve been longing for since my last post, where I plan on watching something silly on TV and go to bed early. Yup, you heard right; I used to be a vocal opponent of TV-shows, but now that I spend every breathing moment thinking about film, I have started to appreciate the low-quality sitcoms that allow me to turn off my filmmaking brain for an episode or two.

These past few weeks have mostly consisted of class, more class, shooting directing exercises, editing directing exercises, thinking about directing exercises, script-writing and pre-production work for my upcoming short film “Sisters,” which is–by far–my biggest project yet. I can’t wait to tell you more about it!


I have made time for some relaxing too — in the form of running my heart out at the track, ahh.

Like I’ve mentioned before, one of the first things we were told at Tisch was to avoid working with animals and children for our early projects, because of the extra challenges it has caused for student-directors in the past.

So, what did I do? Well, as you know, my first NYU-film was about a pigeon — and now I’ve somehow managed to write a script with three kids under 11 years old as the main characters for my spring project. But I’m SO EXCITED about it!


Where the inspiration came from? This. When my sister and I were young enough to rock the 2001-fashion.

Kai and I spent the entire weekend auditioning young actors, which turned into a great learning-experience. The fact that 136 actors submitted applications to be in MY film is just unbelievable. I’m not used to being able to observe, judge and pick actors from a pool this big, and I honestly don’t know how to feel about it. There are so many talented little kids and parents working hard to succeed in the industry, and I wish I could just cast them all.

Auditions – Day 3🎬

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Yesterday we went location scouting. Again, I could’ve made it easy for myself by setting the action inside one room, but since you know me pretty well by now, it should come as no surprise that I wrote a film that requires no less than three very different suburban locations. Good Lord. I’m praying I’ll find the right spots in time.

Anyway, as two tired grad film students who have lived inside the Tisch building for weeks with no days off, Kai and I found great excitement in traveling into the depths of Brooklyn on an ice-cold, windy and gloomy Sunday afternoon as we walked through miles and miles of marshy park-paths in wet sneakers.

The fact that our conversations started revolving around hypothermia and about how we couldn’t feel our faces did not significantly hamper our enthusiasm for this moment of fresh air.

Blessings,
Maria

Onward

Throughout this (extra long) Christmas break, I’ve spent a significant amount of time reflecting over the past semester and all the things I’ve learned. And since this blog’s theme is, already, heavily influenced by my life at film school, I want to share some of the most important lessons I learned while directing and producing my first film as a grad student at NYU Tisch. At the bottom of this post I’ll tell you what’s next on my list of projects.

You can read an earlier posts about the film HERE


Starring the talented Sonya Vai. Photo: Avi Kabir.

It turns out that writing, producing and directing a 16mm film without color, dialogue or music, shot outside, without lights, with only two rolls of film and on a budget that barely made it to three figures was … a challenge, and here’s why:

Screenshot of actress Sonya Vai in action. DP: Qiying Lin.

1. You learn to respect the light
Shooting on film as opposed to digital sounds really cool (to film nerds anyway), but it’s actually an art of its own. Not only do you have to pretend to be a blind surgeon doing a heart transplant when loading the film into the camera mag. Because the light will kill your precious (and very expensive) film stock, you have to do the whole loading inside a light-proof changing bag that has decades of grad student-sweat inside it. You can’t see what your hands are doing, and knowing that even the tiniest light ray will ruin your film, your budget and your dignity only adds to the pressure of performing an already hard task.

Lin demonstrates how the infamous “changing bag” works. 

2. The camera shows no mercy
The Arriflex SR camera from the 1950s is a tough cookie, and YOU have to do everything your digital camera does for you. (WARNING! Technical terms ahead) We had to use light-meter to get the aperture right, neutral density filters to control the light and measuring tapes to get the focus right. It was easily a 2-3 person job to just get the camera ready for each shot.

Ready to roll: Getting the camera ready for each take was a mission of its own. Sonya Vai, Qiying Lin and me. Photo: Avi Kabir.

3. Non-human actors …
The first thing they tell you when you become a grad film student at NYU is:
“We don’t recommend you work with kids or animals. They WILL slow down your production.” So … what did I do? Well, I wrote a script with a pigeon in a leading role. Writing one is easy, finding one is not. I think I talked to every casting agency for animals in New York City (yes, they exist), and I must have visited every bird rescue center and every pet store on Manhattan before I stumbled upon Eddie in Brooklyn. As a pigeon enthusiast and with 80 pet pigeons, he turned out to be an angel in disguise. He showed up with his beautiful white dove, Cleopatra, for free, and he didn’t even want coffee or an umbrella in the storm. What a trooper!

Sonya and Cleopatra’s first interaction was interrupted by the sudden rain. Here with Eddie. Photo: Avi Kabir.

4. Adrenalin for days
You only get two rolls of film, which equals 22 minutes of actual recording time. That means we only got two attempts on each shot, sometimes just one — depending on the length of the action. Combine that with stormy winds, crazy rain and a ticking clock, and you have enough adrenalin for a week.

With director of photography, Qiying Lin. Photo: Avi Kabir.

5. Film is expensive
Some students bought extra rolls of film for a more relaxed shooting experience, but I had to prioritize spending that money on food for the remaining part of the semester. Oh well, the life of a starving artist in the big city.

Screenshot of “TENDER” with actors Sonya and Cleo. DP: Qiying Lin.

6. You have to feed your folks
The director pays for everything on his/her set, and there are rules for how often the cast and crew need to be fed. Thankfully I got everything donated from local stores and was able to shave $400 off my budget, yay!

Screenshot of “TENDER” with actors Sonya and Cleo. DP: Qiying Lin.

7. Rain, thunder, wind …
Our $75,000 worth of camera gear, our bodies and our food was soaked. The only dry creature on set was Cleopatra the bird. In retrospect I see that the rain made my film less bad; it worked with the story and I was pleasantly surprised with the effect it had on the tone of the film.

Not even the rain could interfere with the good moods on set. Here with Sonya, Avi Kabir, Lin and Jorge Sistos. Photo: Kai Torres.

I’m forever grateful for the amazing efforts by the very best, crew 7.

Assistant Director: Kai Torres.
Director of Photography: Qiying Lin.
Assistant Camera: Jorge Sistos.
Sound: Pepi Ginsberg.
Set Photographer and Swing: Avi Kabir.

All in all I’m very proud and happy with how it went, and I can’t wait to tackle our so-called “Spring Narrative film” in a few months. First, I just have to finish the documentary I’m making here in my hometown, and start writing a script for the spring and fly back to the US early next week.

I’ll tell you all about how the documentary is coming once I’m done with the final day of shooting — this coming Sunday.

PS! Some of you have asked if I will publish “TENDER” here, and I regret to inform you that it won’t be posted online. I’ll get back to you with more info.

Now I’ll go prep the equipment for this weekend.

Have a blessed day!
Maria

A day on set

Good evening!

In my last post I told you that my crew and I had just completed shooting four out of six short films, and I’m happy to announce that we’re now one step closer to the finish line, with Jorge’s “Eyes Up” as the only remaining shoot.

However, I promised to tell you all about my own first experience directing a film as an NYU grad film student, so here we go.

This is my “Director-trying-to-visualize-a-good-frame face.” With Sonya Vai and Lin behind the tree. Photo: Avi Kabir

This project is a so-called MOS film; an exercise used to teach us how to tell stories without any of the normal aids that can help carry a film.

It’s shot on super 16mm film, has to be in black and white, shot outside, with no dialogue or music.

In other words, it’s kind of like trying to bake a cake with only butter and water.

If this doesn’t sound like mission impossible to you yet, I’d like to mention that we only get two rolls of film — unless we buy more on your own (Codeword: EXPENSIVE!) — so every take has to count. I, personally, tried to step into my high jumping-mindset “You only get three attempts (at each scene), but try to clear the bar the first time.” As an adrenalin junkie I found great pleasure in that.

This is my “Director-holding-a-green-folder-while-trying-to-balance-a-cup-of-ice-coffee-on-head face.” With Master Lin. Photo: Avi Kabir. 

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’re probably aware of my financial situation, so I took it upon myself to make this production as cheap as humanly possible, for extra difficulty, you know …

But, you know what?! Thanks to God’s grace, Sonya Vai and my amazing crew it worked! We made a film! (Or at least, I think we did … I still haven’t seen the footage because it’s being developed, but one can always hope we actually did record something that resembles the film I had in mind.)

It takes a village! Just kidding, we were just eight people and one animal on my set, at most. (If you include the “dead cat” microphone in Pepi’s hand, we had two animals, but oh well.) Here with Pepi, Jorge, Lin and Sonya. Photo: Avi Kabir.

Here’s a fun fact for ya: Sonya, who played the lead character, was my AirBnB-host when I first moved to the city, and she was the only New Yorker I knew for a couple of weeks, haha. Besides being an awesome host, she’s also a super talented actress, and I’m so honored to have her in my film. Her co-star, Cleopatra, is a beautiful white pigeon that will get its own shout out later.

The two stars: Sonya Vai and Cleo! Photo: Avi Kabir.

My crew consists of the following rock stars:
Director of Photography – Lin (also known as Master Lin)
Assistant Camera – Jorge
Assistant Director and Grip – Kai
Sound – Pepi
Set photos and everything in-between – Avi

I haven’t had this much fun in a long time. Everyone worked exceptionally hard, and despite the rough weather nobody complained. We actually finished the whole film in less than eight hours spread over two days. Pigeon-Cleo was very well-behaved as well.

Here are some more photos from the shoot:

These two camera guys, Jorge Sistos and Qiying Lin, helped bring my vision to life. Photo: Avi Kabir.

Actress Sonya Vai warming up inside the car between takes. Photo: Avi Kabir.

I haven’t been OUT running, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been running. With Sonya and “Master Lin.” Photo: Avi Kabir.

The rain stayed away for our important shots, thank God! Lin and Sonya. Photo: Avi Kabir.

 

 

Sonya and Cleo’s first introduction. T’was love at first sight! Here with bird handler Eddie who was an absolute trouper/angel. He spent hours outside in the rain and didn’t even want an umbrella. What a hero! Photo: Avi Kabir.

Sonya and Cleo hanging out on location. Photo: Avi Kabir.

Avi did a great job capturing moments like these on set. I was actually so far into the directing bubble that I didn’t even notice that he was running around lika a paparazzo. Photo: Avi Kabir.

Jorge measures the light while Sonya and Cleo are waiting for the camera setup to be done. Photo: Avi Kabir.

With Lin and Jorge. Apparently I was very selfish and kept the umbrella all to myself. Sorry guys! Photo: Avi Kabir.

Also, if it wasn’t clear in any of the earlier photos: filmmaking isn’t glamorous. Here’s proof; I spent a significant amout of time crawling on the ground looking like a drowned weasel.

I’d also like to breifly mention that the tree-location was covered in poop. Human poop. So we had to throw away our shoes. But hey, what don’t we do for the art?

I want to give a huge thanks to everyone who helped us make this film possible! Now a month of editing awaits us before the premiere in December.

Bless you all,
Maria

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