Saturday, February 25, 2017


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Jay Lender is an expert animator with a large experience but last year wanted to make his his directorial debut with a horror - comedy film called "THEY'RE WATCHING", co-written and co-directed with Micah Wright, and he gave me the chance to talk with him and could explained me his thoughts and experiences. His film was released in March, 2016 in USA.

EFF: When did born the passion to make films? That moment you felt that films would be your Life?

JL: I love many different art forms... live action film, animation, comic books--I've even written a few songs.  I work in whatever medium is available to me at the moment.  But I think my real love of filmmaking may have been born the first time I saw a movie called The Stunt Man, directed by Richard Rush.  It's smart, funny, a little twisted-- it plays with your sense of reality... and it's about making movies.  It's a fantasy, but a great one, and I think it was the first time I saw a movie that made me think.  That hooked me.

EFF: You have a vast experience on animations you have worked on many famous cartoons, and "They're watching" is your first feature film and live action at all, right? Why you decided to shoot as your first film a horror - comedy film?

JL: Right after I finished working on Phineas and Ferb, Micah came to me and said he had an investor who wanted to make a film.  We knew that our budget would be very low, so we decided to make a horror film because horror films don't need to cost a lot of money, and horror fans see every horror movie that is released.  Horror is the traditional testing ground for new filmmakers for those same reasons.  Of course, we didn't want to do a regular horror movie, and since we both come from cartoons and comedy, we knew that anything we did would have a lot of laughs.  We don't really consider They're Watching a horror movie at all.  We call it a "workplace comedy that goes terribly, terribly wrong."

EFF: I imagine in my mind that maybe get the change from animation to live action must to appears some differences and challenges at the moment to shooting and post production? What were those you faced in, excluding the obvious ones?

JL: It's much easier going from animation to live action than the other direction!  In animation we plan everything down to the smallest detail.  There are no second takes, and no re-shoots--the movie is edited before we ever begin filming!  In live action if you don't like something you can just do it again!  What freedom! In the live action world many details are figured out on set, through experimentation.  But, because we're animators, we came to set fully prepared.  We couldn't understand why everybody was moving so slowly!  We had a very experienced crew, but they had never worked at our pace before.  It took them a few days to adjust!

What we loved about live action was the chance to play a bit.  In animation there's no improvising.  There are no happy accidents.  Everything happens on purpose.  We had a very tight script, but we encouraged our actors to improvise around it, and that's what accounts for the natural feel of the acting.  Every actor knew his character better than we did, and that's the way we wanted it!

Before we left for Romania, I called writer/director Adam Rifkin, who's a friend of a friend, and asked him for his advice.  He told me that he knew dozens of people who went to shoot their movie, ran into problems, then gave up to go home and "re-evaluate".  He said that was the kiss of death:  "you're going to have problems, but whatever you do, get the shot in the can.  You can always make something out of garbage, but you can't make something out of nothing."  We took that very seriously.  We got all of our shots every day.  We never missed one.

The biggest problems we had on this movie (other than the rain, flooding and wild dogs) came during post production.  It took us longer than we wanted because we didn't have all our money in place before we started, and because we didn't have relationships with people who understood the technical side of shooting 5K footage.  For newbies, we did okay!  And next time it will be better because now we have connections to skilled people we like working with.

They're Watching

EFF: What was the most complicated thing on the shooting process for "They're Watching"?

JL: We had a number of long scenes with lots of camera moves, and lots of people.  The musical number was especially difficult.  We spent 2 days in a claustrophobic, boiling hot restaurant, filled with fake smoke, with a crew of 50, plus 20 extras, and 5 of our 6 main characters.  The musical number was recorded live.  The scene was nearly 5 minutes long, and like all our shots it's one unbroken take--because we only allowed ourselves to film from our character's cameras, and there was only one camera in the room at that time.  We shot that scene 4 or 5  times... it was very tense.

In a way, the special effects work at the end of the film was less troublesome, because we were able to disguise our cuts in whip pans, and handle things one bit at a time.  I did over 500 storyboard panels to describe the action from the moment they go into the cellar until the last frame of the film, then we spent lots of time preparing all the shots with our on-set effects coordinator, Vlad Pascanu from DSG, and with our stunt co-ordinator, so there were literally no problems on set.
Jay Lender

EFF: Why travel to rumania and dhoot a film there?

JL: Lots of American films are shot with Los Angeles or Louisiana doubling for a foreign country.  Low budget films like ours rarely travel farther away than Canada, but we wanted our town of Pavlovka to look truly foreign because that "otherness" was such an important idea in They're Watching.  If it looked too familiar, the story wouldn't work.  Nothing in the USA looks like Sibiu, where we shot all our "Pavlovka" scenes.  Nothing.

EFF: Glancing your filmography i always see you co-work with Micah Wright? When did born that work relationship and why keep continuing working with him?

JL: Micah and I met in the 90s at Nickelodeon, when I was working on Hey Arnold and SpongeBob, and he was working on The Angry Beavers and his own show, Constant Payne.  We both have an evil sense of humor, so we liked each other right away.  When we left the studio in 2001 we decided to stick together.  We worked in video games, wrote some screenplays, started working on our graphic novel, Duster, and we did pretty well for a while.  But when the economy collapsed in 2008 there wasn't enough freelance work available for both of us, so I went back to animation for a few years to work on Phineas and Ferb.  When that job ended I asked Micah what we were going to do next, and that's when we started working on They're Watching.

We work very well together.  First we talk our way through a story. One of us will outline until he's tired, then the other can take over for a while.  The same thing happens at script phase.  When one of us is too close to the work, the other one carries the ball.  When we think we're close to the finish line, we work together, reading every line out loud, polishing everything until it shines.  We scream at each other occasionally, and whoever screams loudest usually wins the argument... if it's more important to the other guy, we usually let him win.  :-)

EFF: When you and Micah decided to write this film? And when began all the filming process to pitching to pre-production? How did you get the budget?

JL: In a way the budget came first.  Micah met our producer, Mark Lágrimas, at a Writers Guild panel years earlier, and they had always talked about working together.  Mark had a contact who was interested in investing a in a film--but he was only willing to commit a certain amount--so Micah and I came up with a story that could be filmed for not much money.  Micah pitched the project, the investor said yes, and the 4 of us formed our production company not long after that.  With the seed money we were able to write the script, and make a prospectus with artwork that we could use to get more investors on board.  We wined, dined, and begged everybody we knew to get the remainder of our budget in place.  It was very difficult.  

We spent a little more on casting calls, and put together an amazing group of talented actors.  Then we used some of our seed money to find a production house--the amazing Alien Film in Bucharest.  They helped us scout locations, start preparing a budget, etc.  The remainder of the money didn't come together until a day or two before Micah and I were scheduled to get on the plane!  We almost didn't go!  When we got off the plane we went right to Alien Film's offices and started working with our assistant director, Virgil Nicolaescu.  It was a 40 hour day!

EFF: How was the casting process?

JL: Casting was fantastic.  Our casting director, Andy Henry, brought us an amazing bunch of actors.
We probably saw 20 Sarahs... but Mia Marcon (then called Mia Faith) was the only one who understood the naïveté we were looking for.  Everyone who sees the movie falls in love with her.  She was Sarah come to life. We asked our Gregs to do the Afghanistan monologue, which is the hardest bit of acting in the entire movie... a 2-3 minute close-up, where the actor needs to go through some very complicated emotions.  When Dave Alpay was finished with his audition, a table full of hollywood professionals were in tears.  When we learned he could play the violin we knew we would find a way to work it into the movie.
 They're Watching

We saw a bunch of people playing Vladimir as a greasy Russian used car salesman... but Dimitri Diatchenko gave him a desperate puppy-dog quality that we instantly fell in love with.  He's the highlight of the movie for a lot of people.  Everybody loves Vladimir.  And Dimitri is a world-class guitar player.  What luck! Carrie Genzel terrified us all with her Kate--but also brought a real humanity to the role when the situation in Pavlovka starts to overwhelm her.  When Carrie was done with her audition, the bitch went away and she instantly became the sunniest, happiest person we've ever seen.  Acting!

Brigid understood right away that our witch isn't a mean person--she's wounded... and she's very excited about having her story told.  That childlike enthusiasm for the coming bloodbath is what makes Becky so sympathetic and so much fun.  She's SO excited about it!  Brigid nailed it.

When we wrote Alex we always thought: "what would Shaggy say?"  It was an easy way to keep his character on point, and everybody who auditioned for the part understood it right away.  We saw a lot off Shaggies, and they were all excellent.  But then Kris Lemche showed up... and he was doing something completely different!  He played Alex as an annoying motor-mouth... and it worked!  He saw something in our character that we didn't see.  Now we can't imagine the character any other way. Bad casting can destroy the best screenplay.  If we did anything right with this movie it was picking our actors.  What a cast!

EFF: How did it go with the film? Festivals and audience? The viewers reacted according your idea on the film?

JL: For various reasons that seemed smart at the time, we never took the film to festivals before we released it!  Looking back, that feels like a mistake.  When we premiered, nobody had ever heard of us.  It's almost a year later and even some hardcore horror fans are just now finding us!

Our audience generally likes the film a lot... as long as they know ahead of time that it's not a typical horror movie!  When audiences see a typical horror film they think "I can't wait to see how he dies... and I can't wait to see how she dies!"  But with our film, we want you to think "I hope he doesn't die!"  It's a different kind of experience.  If you're there to see blood, you will get your wish... and lots of it... but first we wanted you to fall in love with our characters.  When our movie is done, we guarantee you will know all of their names.  What other horror movie can make that guarantee?

EFF: I like to ask to my interviewed  what problems they found in their films, because that enrich the learning process, so, what did you find here?

JL: Because of our rule that everything had to be filmed from the "character cameras" we weren't often able to use two cameras in a scene.  Everything had to be shot as master shots... and we had no other angles to cut to!  And we had another rule, that we would not use the "stutter cuts" that other first person camera movies use, where they cut from one angle the same angle a few seconds later.  We feel that sucks the tension out of every scene... because it does!  So there is very little cutting in the middle of sequences in They're Watching.  That means that we were always at the mercy of our performers to keep things going smoothly-- and with exactly 1 day of rehearsal time for the entire shoot, some scenes take longer to play than we would have liked.  If we ever do another movie that has the same rules, we will make sure there are other "character cameras" in every scene, so we can cut away to another angle, like a regular movie, and improve the pacing of scenes that go on too long.  Of course, we'd love to shoot our next film with the traditional third-person camera.  That's much easier!

EFF: Are you a horror fan? Tell me what horror movies you like most?

JL: I'm a fan of any good movie, horror included.  I think Micah and I would both say that Alien is high up on the list... John Carpenter's Halloween is the best slasher movie ever made, and The Thing is... perfect.

EFF: What directors you like most and why?

JL: Leone, Hitchcock, Welles, because of the way they compose their images... Billy Wilder, because of his ability to effortlessly service comedy and drama... sometimes all at once, like in "The Apartment".  Wilder's dialog is the best in the business. Spielberg because of the way he moves the camera, and his ability to manage chaos (see any of the family scenes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind).  I revere almost everybody who ever worked on The Twilight Zone--every episode is a master class on film composition, acting, lighting.  That show is a miracle.

EFF: And now if somebody give you the chance to make a horror remake, what would you choose and why?

JL: I don't know for sure... the trouble is that I would never want to remake a movie that was already good.  Maybe Cronenberg's Shivers?  It's not a bad movie, but it's a little clunky, and I think it could be improved upon just by imagining what Cronenberg might have done if he had made it 10 years later, when movie pacing was a little faster, and he had access to more money and better talent.  If you haven't seen it, you should... it's like the evil opposite of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where a prudish doctor tries to stop the world from being infected by Free Love.  Fascinating!

EFF: What directors has influenced on your directing style?

JL: Micah and I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about other directors when we made They're Watching.  It's such an unusual style of filmmaking that there aren't really a lot of good examples to learn from.  In fact, we spent more time trying to not repeat the mistakes of the "found footage" films we studied during the writing phase.  [By the way, our film isn't a found footage film at all... because our footage isn't found.  We have a survivor, who is a professional filmmaker.  So, in theory, They're Watching is edited, and scored "by" that survivor.]

I think what we brought to the production of our film was the collaborative style of an animation production.  We learned from cartoons to let other people do their jobs.  We had an important rule on our production:  everybody has to be better at his job than we were at his job... or they had to go.  If your people aren't better than you, then you will spend all your time doing their job, and if they are better than you then you need to get out of their way!  All we needed to do was make sure that everybody understood what we wanted.  That was easy--we both have big mouths!

EFF: What equipments, cameras did you use in your film?

JL: We used the Red Epic for most of the shots on this film, and we would use it again.  It's a solid camera if you know how to crunch the data that comes out of it.

EFF: Wht advice would you give for those want-to-be filmmakers who are undediced about how to shoot their first story?

JL: We were insane to do a feature film as our first project!  Get a little money.  Get a decent camera. Plan, plan, plan.  Then plan some more.  Listen to Adam Rifkin's advice and never miss a shot. Listen to our advice and remember that filmmaking isn't creating a record of an actor's performance--it's a sculpture... a collage.  You can make anything out of the material you gather.  We moved scenes from one place to another in the movie.  We used dialog from one scene over video from another.

We had a scene where Sarah was "filming", but we decided that the scene wasn't right for her, so we recorded new dialog from Kate and Vladimir.  Carrie Genzel recorded her dialog on an iPhone in a bathroom in Canada.  Dimitri Diatchenko recorded his on a computer in my back yard.  We cut together versions of their lines from multiple takes, added footsteps and panning audio to make it sound like Vladimir was approaching Kate as she ran the camera, and BOOM... new scene!  We invented it all in post production.  Your film is clay.  You don't record it, you shape it.

EFF: What do you have in mind now, an upcoming film?

JL: We've just finished the screenplay for our version of an early 80s-style slasher film.  We're also working on a sequel to They're Watching.  We've got several other screenplays and pitches, for animation and live action, movies and TV, that we'd love to do, but we'll do whatever they pay us to do.  We need to eat!  :-)

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