Guest Article: Postapocalyptic Directing for “Phoenix 9″

Phoenix 9 from the Director’s Point of View

A street scene concept artwork for "Phoenix 9" by [ChrisCold]]

A street scene concept artwork for “Phoenix 9” by ChrisCold

It has been half a year now since we shot Phoenix 9 in Los Angeles. By that time, I was writing an own blog in German, where I was writing in detail about what was going on during pre-production (ff you can read German, take a look for some in-depth stories). All my friends in Germany where expecting another article on how things went during the shooting, but right after the shooting, I wasn’t capable of doing that. It took me a while to process and to understand all the things that had happened, not only during the shooting, but also during my whole time in Los Angeles.

This here is more like an add-on to Tobi’s article about his Cinematography on the film. You can find everything about how this project actually came to life on his article, this article is really more about some things that I learned for myself and how I observed some specific situations.

can1800One thing I can tell you: If you ever think of putting all your savings, and your friend’s savings into one project, borrow more money from your family and use all your credit cards to get that project done…think twice. I can’t tell you how much pressure that builds. Especially if you know that there is no “Plan B”. There was no way to shoot another day, not even to shoot for an extra hour – since the site monitor (that we had to pay a lot of money to, to be able to shoot there in the first place), simply wouldn’t allow it.

So, the risk was very high… but the reward was high as well. I am not talking about how the film does once it gets out, because at that point, I don’t know what is going to happen. I am talking about the experience I gained while working on that project.

city1800After telling all of the stories to my friends in Germany, they looked at me and said things like: Wooow…you must be really very brave to pull something like that off – either that, or you were really naive. I think it was a mixture of both. And I think you need that mixture, to do something like that, something that is bigger than anything else you have ever done before. If you think about whether you should go for such a thing or not, I guess the more you think about it, the more reasons you will find not to do it. So as the Nike commercials tell you: Just Do It.

That doesn’t mean that you should just go for things without preparation, of course you have to do that. Peer and I worked for so long time on preparing this film, until we were 100% sure that we have to get that thing on screen, no matter what.

brothers1800So what did we do? First of all, we worked on the story for a really long time. That is the one thing you must understand about film: if you have great visuals, the most expensive equipment you can get, amazing actors, but yet have a poor story, you are screwed. You have to generate emotions with your story, you have to pull your audience into your world. If you tell your story to someone and you stop at a certain point, and this persons asks you: “what is going to happen next?”, then you’re on a good way. Because they are curious, they care to know about your characters.

Also, having a good story is the one thing where you can, even as independent filmmaker, hold up with Hollywood. You may not have the same fancy camera, or the most awesome location, but having a good story and casting the right actors is far more important than the rest. If it was easy to write a good script, everyone would do it. It took Peer and me quite a while to get to the point, where we felt like: “we have to get this thing on screen, no matter what”.

As you can see in the column of concept artworks by Chris Cold, a lot of work went into preparing and planning the visuals of the film meticulously.

As you can see in the column of concept artworks by Chris Cold, a lot of work went into preparing and planning the visuals of the film meticulously.

The other thing we did, is observing what was going on in the internet with a lot of other Sci-Fi short films, we talked to some of the filmmakers, and got to know why some of the deals did work out, and why others failed. We knew that our short film would fit into the category of those films, that could get the attention of important people in the industry.

Initially, we wanted to shoot that short film in Germany, and had hoped to get some government film funding. By then, even though the core of the story was the same, it was just supposed to be about 2 brothers instead of a group of people, as you can see on the concept artwork on the right.

Changing Plans: From Germany to Los Angeles

We tried to put together the project in Germany for a year, but it didn’t work out. So Peer and I had to decide: either just forget about that whole thing, or we’d try to shoot it in LA. It didn’t really take us long to decide, it was never about IF we should do it, but rather HOW to get this thing done. So, 4 years after we met the first time while playing tennis, I booked my ticket to LA, and we had 6 weeks of prep time until the shooting would start.
I stayed at Peer’s place, he lives with his wife Saskia and his son Sebastian in an apartment in Culver City. They welcomed me from the very beginning in a very nice way. If they would have only known by that time, that there were still 2 more German speaking crazy guys to come..

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Peer and me before playing Tennis – that’s the way we met years ago.

Crewing Up and Getting the People Together

Of course, if you can’t pay people their normal salary, you will always have people dropping out. That is what happened to us all the time, over and over again. Peer always compared it to putting out fires. You clear one, then another one appears. So what you really need is finding people who are just as excited about your project as yourself.

That was the case with Tobi. Like he wrote in his article, we had interviewed six other DP’s, who had awesome reels that mostly contained of music videos. So you can imagine how disappointed I was, when I had the feeling that all those DP’s didn’t have any kind of vision themselves. They’d say: “just tell me what you want me to do, and I’ll do it.”

I know that a lot of directors like that, but I don’t. The reason is: for me, filmmaking is teamwork. Of course, as a director you need to have a vision how you want the film to look like, but what I really enjoy is brainstorming with every department, throwing around ideas, and that way, create something together that is just so much better than what I originally had in mind.

My role is just to make sure that all of those ideas actually fit together, and that they are still part of the vision I have. If I want to make a post-apocalyptic film that for example looks like “The Road“, I don’t wanna have some Steampunk elements in the costumes or set design. It is still part of one world, it must feel organic.

And creating that world in a team is really a lot of fun. I am always open to suggestions. No matter if it’s the screenwriter, the costume designer, the DP, or the actors. The only thing they must know and respect: I am the one who decides. I am very thankful for every idea they throw at me, but either it is a yes, or no. No discussion or any reason to justify.

Another thing I want to add is this: I think one of the biggest differences between Tobi and the other DPs is his general knowledge. As an artist, no matter what kind of art you do, it is essential that you always try to expand your knowledge about everything. No matter if it’s about history, music, different cultures, science, spirituality, traveling..everything that expands your view of life, you will benefit from. If you think critically about what creativity is, it’s nothing else than connecting different existing things, and building something new from it. So the bigger the pot with your knowledge is, the more possibilities you have for being creative. That’s where you get your inspirations from.
That is just from the artistic point of view, and of course, having such an expanded horizon just makes you a more interesting person in general and improves one’s quality of living.

So that was the difference between talking to Tobi, and talking to the other DP’s. There was just no substance with the other guys, no way to connect, because there was no vision. Surely you can create beautiful images for music videos that way, but when it comes to narrative film, where you actually want to deliver a message, and those images should have a deeper meaning, it’s just not enough. Because you need to understand life, and you need to understand people.

Daniela Flynn as "Claire"

Daniela Flynn as “Claire”

Peer and I couldn’t have pulled this project off, if we wouldn’t have listened to our guts when it came to choosing the people we work with. Among those key positions where of course Peer (who I knew covered my back 110% and who I could rely on blindly), Tobi, and then there was Robert (who was our VFX supervisor and a friend of mine who I studied with in Germany), Ami (our costume designer who created costumes that exceeded everything we had hoped for), Lauren and her team of great Make-Up artists, Reed (our production designer who worked for more than 40 hours without sleep like a maniac, just to get that set ready for us in time), and of course our actors, who were all really awesome people and talented performers.

And of course, you need to have some luck, like getting a replacement for a gaffer, a new guy that turns out to be exactly what you needed without you even knowing that in the first place.

Paul Lange as "Warren"

Paul Lange as “Warren”

When we decided to go for that film, I knew that there were going to be a lot of challenges ahead of us. It wasn’t about having the perfect answer for everything, I doubt anyone has that. I mean, if you knew everything that was going to happen and didn’t have to improvise, if there was nothing new to learn, how boring would filmmaking be? This film was a great learning process, and believe me, I learned more through this project than I learned in 4 years of film school.

Every director has a different background. Some directors were actors before, some come from theater, and some directors like myself come from the technical side, having done everything you can do on set, starting from being a PA, set runner, AC, DP, Gaffer, boom operator, but also doing a lot of post production like editing, sound mixing, and some VFX.
That background makes it easy for me to communicate with my team, because we speak the same language.

Since I have never done acting before, that part was a bigger challenge. Luckily Peer and I had cast really great actors, and Daniela and Paul helped me a lot in getting the results that I wanted… actually, we had a really great mixture of actors with different levels of experience.

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Me and all the actors after wrap up. Left to right: Ryan Nelson as “Ace”, Daniela Flynn as “Claire”, Carl Edward Williams as “Henry”, Amir Reichart (Director), Aileen Xu as “Alison”, Corey Rieger as “Gus”, Russell Dennis Lewis as “Ben” and Paul Lange as “Warren”.

Carl Williams who played "Henry" - his first role ever.

Carl Williams who played “Henry” – his first role ever.

For example, we had Carl, who played Henry. He never acted in his life before, Peer and I asked him if he’d be interested in auditioning for us; we randomly spotted him while he was working in his Burger restaurant in Santa Monica. And he totally nailed the role. When he told me 2 weeks after the shooting that he got a lead role in a short film, I couldn’t help myself but feeling some sort of pride and feeling really happy for him.

Or if you take Ryan for example, he plays the hacker Ace. He replaced an actor who dropped out 3 days before shooting started. Peer and I looked through backstage (a casting site) the whole night, in order to find someone who could replace that actor. I had selected the option to only show actors with a video on their profile page. Ryan had just one video, it was in a really low quality, taken with a mobile phone and showed him doing stand up comedy. No reel or any kind of other video. But when I saw that stand up comedy video, I knew he was the one we were looking for. He had this exact energy level that the cheeky character of Ace needed.

So we contacted him, and we held an audition with him next to an intersection, during his short break that he had while working in a restaurant. When a colleague of Ryan came out, and he wanted to talk to him, Ryan said he was in the middle of an audition. His colleague looked at us, smiled and asked: seriously? I thought: yeah dude, if you only knew, this whole situation is just so unreal, far more than you can imagine. And just as I thought, after the first sentence, I knew my feeling was right and Ryan was the perfect Ace.

Our cast in best spirits while the desert sun is burning down on us.

Our cast in best spirits while the desert sun is burning down on us.

But also the other actors, Corey, Russel and Aileen, they had a lot of patience and never complained about anything. Even though those challenges really took us to our limits, they seemed to enjoy this experience.

Corey Rieger as "Gus"

Corey Rieger as “Gus”

Alieen Xu as "Alison" and Russell Dennis Lewis as "Ben"

Alieen Xu as “Alison” and Russell Dennis Lewis as “Ben”

Ryan Nelson as "Ace"

Ryan Nelson as “Ace”

 

Just hanging out on the dunes of the Imperial Valley after the last shot is in the can.

Just hanging out on the dunes of the Imperial Valley after the last shot is in the can.

What you must understand as director, is that actors are also just humans. You can’t expect them just to deliver exactly what you have in mind by saying “Action!”. It takes a lot more than that. Also, every actor works differently, just like every DP works differently. Here it is really more about your social skills, which leads back to what I said before: you need to understand people.

The other really important thing is: be sure to have a shooting schedule that allows you to try things out. In our case, we didn’t have a lot of time. The first 2 days of shooting, we shot 7,5 pages/film minutes per day, which is really a lot. So what we had to do is just shoot a maximum of 3-4 takes per shot, until I got what I had in mind, and then continue. There wasn’t really time to experiment with the actors, or do any kind of variations. Which is unfortunate, because that is where the magic happens.

There was one of those magic moments for me while shooting (from the acting side). There is a scene where Paul, our lead actor, gets punched in the face, and he falls on the ground. Daniela suggested to do something there that wasn’t written in the script. But we were really short on time, so my AD suggested me not to do it because it would cost us quite some time. Time that we didn’t have. Still, she asked me to just let her do her the improvised reaction once, just to try it out and see how it would feel like for me.
Again, here your role as director is to listen and decide. Should I listen to the AD and let the team set up the next shot, or should I listen to the actress? There is no universal answer to that, this is just about you and your gut feeling.

Luckily I listened to her. That scene was really magical. While she did it, I got goosebumps and it left me speechless. All I did after I said cut, was to look at her with a smile, and nod. Until now this is really one of my favorite moments of the film. And you can only get a present like that from really good actors. Even though Daniela and Paul did never rehearse that scene before, they delivered a great performance that felt absolutely real.

Post-Production and Lessons Learned

After coming back to Germany, I finally started to take acting classes, learn about the Alexander technique, do some Yoga, and so on. Expanding my knowledge in the things that I felt needed to improve, and until now, I am still doing that.

Before Phoenix 9, I was never really interested in acting. I was happy that there were people out there who seem to like that, but I didn’t really get the reason why they would like acting. I started understanding it while talking with Daniela, our lead actress, before the shoot. Where we talked about her character Claire, what she sees in her, what possibilities there were. That got me interested in learning more about the actor’s process, and after having completed my first acting course that took 3 months, I can tell you that acting teaches you a lot of things that you can even use in your daily lives.

Your way of observing interactions, and your skills in empathy increase a lot. I am not only talking about filmmaking here, I am talking about personal development. And because I really believe in that, I want to learn more and more. So now I am taking private acting classes, because simply acting in a group didn’t seem enough for me anymore.

All in all, Phoenix 9 was a rollercoaster of emotions. But I wouldn’t want to miss this experience, because it gave me so much. One of the most important things I learned is to embrace those challenges, and see them as opportunity to learn and grow.
If you always stay in your comfort zone, you will not grow. You won’t experience magic. You have to allow yourself to struggle, take it as a good sign, observe how you learn and expand your knowledge and your comfort zone. And these memories I am sure, are going to stay with me forever. I will never forget those funny moments we had for example, when Tobi, Robert, Peer and I had this camp atmosphere at Peer’s place during preproduction and production.

Amir_Tobi_Peer

Me on the left, DP Tobi in the middle, and writer/producer Peer with his son “Dr.Sebastian” on the right

While “Phoenix 9” is in post-production now, and will hopefully come out in the next 3 months, I am preparing another Sci-Fi short film with a German production company, that we hope to shoot this summer if everything works out. Again, Peer wrote a great script, and I hope to have that crazy Austrian guy again by my side as DP to support me on my way to get that film on screen.