PALM SPRINGS SHORTFEST 2011: CLEAR BLUE (2010): Interview With Filmmaker Lindsay MacKay and Producer S. Brent Martin
Lindsay MacKay developed a keen sense for the craft of filmmaking as both a writer and director while studying film production at Toronto's York University (where she graduated from their Film and Video Production program with producer S. Brent Martin). Her early work, Laces and We're On Our Way have won at the Moondance International Film Festival and screened at the Toronto International Film Festival Showcase. Lindsay's most recent work, Clear Blue (2010) premiered at Camerimage and was an Official Selection of SXSW and the Palm Springs International ShortFest; it is her Graduate thesis film at The American Film Institute (AFI). While at AFI, Lindsay was awarded the Bridge / Larson Foundation grant for her thesis and received the prestigious Mary Pickford Endowment for academic achievement and acknowledgement of her talent. In addition to her narrative work, Lindsay has co‐directed multiple video installations for Toronto's Nuit Blanche; they were voted number one attraction of the night by the Toronto Star. Lindsay is currently developing her first feature film entitled Wet Bum, which was recently named a top 10 finalist in the Zoetrope Screenwriting competition.S. Brent Martin is a graduate (MFA, Producing 2010) of the American Film Institute Conservatory (AFI), in Los Angeles, CA. While studying at AFI, Brent was the recipient of the prestigious Joseph and Olga Auerbach Scholarship. For his AFI thesis film, Clear Blue, Brent was awarded a College Television Award (aka Student Emmy) for his achievements in student filmmaking. Clear Blue was selected to screen in competition at Plus Camerimage, SXSW, the Atlanta Film Festival, and Palm Springs International ShortFest, amongst others. It was recently jury selected to screen at the annual AFI Thesis Showcase at the Directors Guild of America (DGA).
Originally from Calgary, Alberta, Brent graduated from York University. There he directed and produced the documentary My Grandfather's Voice (2006), which screened at film festivals across Canada, and won the Best Documentary Awards at both Cinesiege and the Winnipeg International Film Festival. While at York University, Brent also produced two award winning short films, Viva Jopo (2007) and Souvenirs From Asia (2007). Both films were screened in festivals across Canada, the US, and Hong Kong. In 2007, Brent worked as the assistant to producer William Vince, founder of Infinity Features. Currently based out of Toronto and Los Angeles, Brent is developing a number of television series, documentaries, and feature film projects.
Clear Blue, their narrative entry into this year's Palm Springs International ShortFest, came highly recommended by my eyes and ears at the festival, Dominic Mercurio, who ranked it at the top of his 10 best from the fest. Dominic secured an MP4 of the film so that I might watch it and I agreed with his assessment, contacting producer S. Brent Martin who arranged for a telephone conference with the film's director Lindsay MacKay. I have to mention that sitting in my office in Boise, Idaho, with Brent in Toronto, and Lindsay in Los Angeles confirmed for me that relocating from San Francisco did not mean I would lose touch with film's cultural conduits. Quite the contrary. With less day-to-day distractions by insistent publicists and incessant press screenings, I can calmly focus on the films that interest me and which arrive before me in an organic fashion. These are the interview opportunities I've arranged for myself with no obligation to anyone other than myself and the films and filmmakers that attract me; something which has become increasingly important to me as a film journalist. [This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!]
* * *Michael Guillén: Clear Blue is accomplished for being such a simple narrative with an elegant central concept. It bears a Pre-Raphaelite flourish and reminded me of the mermaid paintings of John William Waterhouse and Edward Burne-Jones. Can you speak to developing the concept for this script?
Lindsay MacKay: It came to me through a few images. I had an initial image of a naked elderly woman entering the ocean, which I found striking. Perhaps that image entered my mind because I now live in Los Angeles near the ocean? But the true root of Clear Blue is that I grew up around a nursing home and was constantly confronted as a young person by elderly people. And then, my brother and my sister were both lifeguards when I was growing up so water was a big part of my childhood. Every summer I spent a lot of time in the pool in our backyard. Clear Blue brings these two memories together.
Then because the image of the old woman entering the ocean was so rich for me, I started to research mermaid culture. I began thinking about my relationship to elderly people and how I approached them based upon how I felt, which was often that the look of them scared me and kept me away from them. They looked different than me. But once I got to know them, the shield came down and I realized they were nice people.
Guillén: [Chuckling.] As someone in his middle years--perhaps not quite elderly--I find myself repeatedly negotiating with young people in an effort to convince them that I'm not going to suck the life out of them.
MacKay: [Laughs.] Good! I think at a certain age a young person realizes their parents are people--"Oh, they have a life and their lives are complicated." That was a big realization for me, not only with my parents but with my grandparents, to realize they were complicated and dealing with things that were far more difficult than my teenage years.
Guillén: Let's approach the look of the film. Even though I didn't have Dominic's opportunity to watch it projected in 35mm on a large screen and, admittedly, only got to see it on an MP4, I nonetheless found the look of the film quite beautiful and was struck by your opportunity as a student filmmaker to film a short on 35mm. How did you finance that? How did that come about?
S. Brent Martin: I can answer that. Clear Blue is our thesis film that we've worked on together as part of our curriculum at the AFI. It's the last and biggest project we make as we leave AFI and go out into the world. The American Film Institute has a long history of filmmaking. These days, if you're ever going to make a short on 35mm a great opportunity to do so is at a film school where you have that support and where a certain portion of your budget is freed up because you're using students for free labor and have a grant system within the school that supports you with equipment. Shooting on 35mm was something Lindsay and her wonderful Danish cinematographer Mattias Troelstrup wanted to do from the very beginning, right Lindsay?
Martin: Lindsay was uncompromising and I was pretty much on board. As far as raising the budget goes, the school gave us a chunk of it. We also secured a small grant. But the major portion of the budget was raised through an online Facebook campaign where friends and family--and strangers!--donated through our website. We advertised what we were doing on Facebook and--when someone would donate--we would make a point of saying, "Thanks to so-and-so for donating" and link their name to it. Others would see it and then it just snowballed. We raised close to $35,000 that way.
Guillén: Wow! Excellent!
Martin: Our experience is a testament to the modern age of technology and the internet that we were able to reach out to so many people without targeting anyone, except maybe our parents.
Martin: We didn't really target them; they came to us. That was a cool thing. They came to us because they were genuinely interested in what we were doing and wanted to see us succeed. It was quite an interesting experience--and perhaps Lindsay can talk more about the creative choices of shooting on 35mm--but, it was a great experience to go through while we were at school. It made it much more possible.
Guillén: Lindsay, it is astonishing in itself that you shot on 35mm for a short, but I am thoroughly impressed with all the underwater photography, which is equally astonishing. How did you effect that? Did you rent an underwater rig? Or did you build one?
MacKay: We worked with Hydroflex, one of the companies in L.A. They're probably international; I don't know....
Martin: They do all the underwater shoots that you see coming out of Hollywood like The Abyss and Titanic and all these big movies. They provide the technology and the expertise in doing these underwater shooting processes.
MacKay: We rented an underwater rig for the 35mm camera from them. Everything above water was handled by my cinematographer Mattias but then we hired a guy to do the underwater work so we could concentrate above water. We had a monitor above water, which attached to the camera below so we could see what the camera was seeing, and we had a speaker system so I could communicate with the actors and they could hear me underwater. Each actor had a safety diver underwater specifically for them and that safety diver had air so that, inbetween takes, the actors could swim to the safety diver to get air. We worked out a communication system. I now feel that--even though I hadn't done it before--I'm competent to direct underwater. It was surprisingly easy.
Martin: If I might interject real quick, the major challenge to shooting underwater was in training the actors and our uneasiness and uncertainty in working with actors underwater. Getting a believable and dramatic performance out of them while they were underwater was a major challenge. We did a lot of training with our actors with regard to their holding their breath and sinking to the bottom of the pool. There was a lot that went into leading up to the actual shoot. The safety divers that Lindsay mentioned were remarkable. Lindsay would shout "action" through the speaker system, the actors would let go of the air hose, perform their scene, and then Lindsay would yell "cut" and the safety divers would bring the air hoses back to the actors so they could breathe their oxygen before the next shot. The actors got so good at this that they would stay underwater up to 45 minutes at a time for take after take.
Guillén: Let's talk about your actors. I was impressed with all the performances in your film--not only the two lead performances by Chris Sheffield as Simon and Nancy Linehan Charles as Flova--but your supporting characters as well, particularly Ron McCoy as Pat. Can you talk about how you went about casting?
MacKay: We got a really fantastic Canadian casting director John Buchan to come down to Los Angeles to help us out. He was amazing for us. He brought in a lot of people. For the role of Pat, we saw quite a range of different types of people; but, when Ron came in, he blew us away. He was so natural. You could hear him coming a mile away on this huge motorcycle and he had this patch on his chin and, in gist, he turned out to be a completely different man than he appeared to be. He was actually so gentle and spot-on. He was amazing. We were all shocked that he did such a great audition.
As for the other actors, I have to say casting had a lot to do with luck and going with our gut. Chris Sheffield came to us and we weren't sure if we were going to go with him but then I did a callback with him and we played around for a little while, about a half hour or so, and he was just so natural. I threw a lot of strange things at him to see how he would react and what attracted me was that he was very much reacting, not acting.
Martin: Knowing that we had the element of water to begin with, casting became an interesting challenge that none of us had ever dealt with before, particularly for both the elder and young Flova. The older Flova required the combination of an elderly woman and an excellent swimmer. We had actually cast the role weeks before our shoot with another actress and then got her in the water to make sure she could swim like she said she could and this lady almost drowned. We panicked and had to recast and find another elderly woman who could swim like a fish. We were so blessed to be graced by Nancy's presence. She was both a phenomenal actress and person and a great swimmer.
Casting the role of the younger Flova was an added challenge because we didn't know how to cast the role of this actress who was underwater the whole time. We came to the conclusion that we needed to be looking at girls underwater or else we weren't going to be getting the information we needed to cast the role. We essentially sneaked into community pools and asked auditioning actresses to meet us there. We put them in the water and Mattias and Lindsay joined them in the water with the camera to film them doing exercises underwater to see if they appeared natural. Thia Schuessler, who we cast as the young Flova, was an exceptional swimmer and did a remarkable job with no lines 100% underwater. She brings quite a bit to the movie.
Guillén: Absolutely. All your actors provide a wonderful presence in the film. Let's talk a bit about Clear Blue's festival trajectory. Can you speak a bit to your experience of touring with a short film on the festival circuit? And what it's been like to interact with your audiences?
MacKay: We premiered at Camerimage. I wanted to be in a festival whose prime focus was cinematography. I've been wanting to go to Camerimage for years and then Clear Blue was accepted but I wasn't able to go. It's an amazing festival and I hear it's primarily DPs who hang out and talk about their work. After Camerimage we played South by Southwest, which was really an amazing experience for us. We were so lucky because we were programmed in the same program as Spike Jonze and the Safdie Brothers in the Medium Cool program, which consisted of medium-length shorts. Crowds of people came to see Spike Jonze's film Scenes From the Suburbs but--even though we were the underdog in that program--there was a lot of great response to Clear Blue. It was opportune to be screening in a program with a filmmaker of Spike Jonze's reputation and I felt we met the challenge. Since then, we've been playing a lot of regional festivals in the U.S. such as Akron, Atlanta, and now Palm Springs.
Martin: One further highlight is that we won a "student Emmy" award a few months back. The official name is the College Television Award and the ceremony took place in L.A., sponsored by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the same group that sponsors the Emmys. It's a nationwide competition for student films where three are awarded. We won second place in the drama category. That entailed a night in Hollywood at an award show with lots of television personalities and stars. It was quite an event. Quite cool.
Guillén: Congratulations! A taste of things to come, eh? Can you speak to your specific experience at Palm Springs? Did it differ in any way from your other festival experiences? Or can you speak to the experience as a whole?
MacKay: Palm Springs International ShortFest is a great festival. I've only been able to go to the South by Southwest screening and--though it was a wonderful festival and we were lucky to be in such a great program--the festival itself was so big and busy. What's been great about Palm Springs is that it feels like an intimate community. I was able to connect with other filmmakers and everyone seems really interested in the work. Not to say that they weren't at SXSW, but it's so much bigger there that it's harder to see everything and connect with everyone. There was a great crowd at Palm Springs. We would walk down the street after our screening and people who we didn't even know had attended our screening would come up to us to say how much they had enjoyed our film. For a filmmaker, that's a great experience. What about you, Brent?
Martin: Pretty much the same. Palm Springs is a personable festival and I have nothing else to say about it other than that the parties were great. We met a lot of people and I came away feeling that I'd gone to summer camp and made close friends. I stayed the whole length of the festival and it seemed there was one party after another to go to where everyone went to the same party. It was so much fun. I definitely want to go back.
Guillén: What, then, are your future plans for Clear Blue? What's the next step for a short filmmaker once you've toured the film festival circuit?
MacKay: We're still hoping there's a bit of a life for Clear Blue. Right now it's playing at the Moscow International, which is really exciting and I wish I could be there. And we have our fingers crossed for a few other festivals. From that, I think I'll venture out into the feature world. I have a few ideas that I'm trying to get going. Hopefully, I'll just keep doing this. I'd like to make another short as well, but I think it's time that I tried to make a longer format film.
Guillén: Lindsay, can you speak to the value of a filmmaker starting out with short film format?
MacKay: I've made short films for probably seven years now. Before I started, I had no idea what film was. I liked the idea of telling stories, which is why I got into filmmaking. The value lies in just the vast knowledge of going out there and doing this. Most of my film education has been hands-on. The most important thing for a filmmaker is to pick up a camera and go out there and just try things. Shorts are a great format to do that. You can play around with characters and you can play around with the story. With every film that I've made, I've learned something new about myself and the kind of filmmaker I want to be. I'm just now getting to the point where I feel that--because of all my past experience--I'm ready to step into the feature world. And I'm sure that with every feature I make, I will have the same experience of continually learning as I've had making shorts, albeit in a longer format.
Guillén: Having had this fortunate experience of making films on 35mm through the assistance of AFI, how willing are you to curb costs and work on digital?
MacKay: I'm a bit of a film snob, which I'm trying to get over. I've shot only film in my undergrad work before I came to AFI. At AFI was the first time I ever shot on HD and I have to say that I am impressed with HD. There are cameras that can make a project look great. It's getting better all the time. At this juncture, I realize that the format I shoot in depends on what the project needs. If I can shoot on film, I will shoot on film, but I'm not going to sacrifice other aspects of the filmmaking just to shoot on film. We were fortunate with Clear Blue that Brent, myself, our cinematographer, our production designer Eun Kyung Nam and our editor Rachel Katz all agreed that we wanted the look of film for Clear Blue. That was important to all of us. But what's truly important is what works for the project. If we make a $200,000 feature and we can't afford film, I'll just suck it up and deal with it. [Laughs.] In the ideal world, I'm a bit of a film snob but I'll get over it.
Martin: We'll all help you, Lindsay.
MacKay: Thank you!
Guillén: To begin wrapping up then, let's turn to you, Brent. I'm intrigued by your leaning towards film production and by the fact that you and Lindsay started out together at York University and have both continued your schooling (and your collaboration) at AFI. Are you a filmmaker yourself?
Martin: I am. I have directed a little bit in my early days. As you say, I started with Lindsay at York University. I got into school there not really knowing anything about filmmaking but--just like Lindsay--I wanted to tell stories. Because I was so passionate about storytelling, I tried everything: editing, shooting, and directing. At York, I became enamored with the idea of making my own projects happen. There was no program on producing there so me and one other guy became the only two producers at York undergrad, surrounded by all these other directors and actors and camera operators wanting to tell their stories. I ended up having the fortunate opportunity of working with a lot of people. Ironically, Lindsay wasn't one of those people. We went to school together and we were friends but I never produced anything for Lindsay at York.
When it came time to attend AFI, we had our first year and we had the opportunity to work and collaborate with many other directors and Lindsay and I chose consciously not to work with each other that first year because we wanted the opportunity of meeting as many people as we could. We held off and resisted the temptation to work with one another. Then, by the end of first year, we realized we wanted to work together. I loved her script and the work she made in her first year and we decided it was time to work with each other. Even though we wanted to meet different people, we thought it was time to come together on this amazing project. I think it really paid off. I loved working with Lindsay. I do want to continue to produce, as well as direct, in the future. I'm interested in producing documentaries, which I'm passionate about. Though I do direct, I'm interested in producing and making projects happen. I get to collaborate with great artists and filmmakers.
Guillén: As the producer of Clear Blue and hoping, as you said, that the film continues to have a life past the festival circuit, how (as the producer) do you hope to effect distribution? Will you pitch it to a streaming site?
Martin: We're always continuing to learn about what the best way might be to get this movie out there after the festival world. There are continuously more and more options in the digital realm and online. I've never dealt with distributing my own work before on this level. Once the festival circuit is over, the goal would be to either distribute it on DVD or broadcast on TV. Other formats like streaming on iTunes remains an option just to make it available. But the main excitement and point of this project is to have a great festival life, have as many people see it as possible, and use it as a calling card for everyone involved to go on and make their next projects. It's great to see how much we can squeeze out of this. Clear Blue's been treating us well so far and it's been fun.
Guillén: Well, it's a lovely and accomplished project and I want to thank both of you for taking the time to speak with me today.
Martin: Thank you. You've conducted a great interview and we appreciate it very much.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.
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