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Monday, June 14, 2010

Movie Spotlight: Marty Buccafusco from Sneakers And Soul

Last summer I became, quite incidentally, tangentially involved in a film project coming out of the Empire State, titled Sneakers And Soul. Helmed by Jonathan Zelenak from a script written by Zelenak and Marty Buccafusco, the movie follows the journey of Johnny-Boy Bailey and his erstwhile BFF Ace as they travel across the wilds of New Jersey in search of themselves? A connection? The movie is thoughtful and funny and sincere in a way that is not often found in today's cinema and it was a wonder to be a part of something so cool (even if all I did was pen a song on the soundtrack).

As of right now, the film is racking up film festival appearances and was even nominated for Best Narrative Feature at the Tallahasee Film Festival. The film was recently featured in an article in the New York Times about the New Jersey International Film Festival, where S & S is already garnering attention among the promoters of the festival. While distribution is limited to screenings in NYC and at the various festivals, the list of screens showing the film is continually growing, so check out the website for more updates.

I sat down with the film's Co-Producer/-Writer/-Editor, Mr. Buccafusco recently and chatted about the film, its production, and where he and Mr. Zelenak see all this going. The interview follows below.

Tres Crow: Marty, Sneakers and Soul was a thoroughly down home affair. How much did it cost to make the film? How long was filming? Post-production?

Marty Buccafusco: This was about as down-home as you can get for a feature film. We were able to complete the entire production with a $60,000 budget - a task which was by no means easy or recommended. In order to pull this off, we had to rely on a lot of support from community members and other artists who shared the same passion for this process and this project. I should point out that the budget wasn't kept low because we knew there were favors that could taken advantage of. We worked with a low budget because of fundamental decision by the producers to keep this project as close to "Murray Style" as possible. In honor of our main character and the catalyst behind this story, we chose to use creative solutions to get around problems that bigger productions usually just solve with more money. There is certainly a sense of pride about the tight ship that we ran, but there is no way this could have been pulled off without such amazing support. Sleeping bags and cots were donated from neighbors, local restaurants and community members supplied us with countless meals and we forged some wonderful partnerships with crew members and musicians to work out respectable deals for their hard work.

The production lasted about 3 years overall. Jon wrote the first draft in mid-2007 and the script was finalized by the end of the year. Pre-production officially began in the early months of 2008. Patrick LaMorte (producer), Jon and I all left our jobs to embark on the 24-day shoot that summer and we then spent about a year in post-production. Pre- and post-production took a little longer than we had hoped because Jon and I (who edited the film) had to go back to working 50-hour weeks to pay the bills.

TC: S & S, began its life as a story by Jonathan, correct? Tell me a bit about the process of adapting the original story into a script? Was the story always destined to be filmed, or was there another market for it? What were some of the difficulties of adaptation?

MB: The first time this project came to my attention was when Jon was submitting a rough outline of the story in the hopes of earning a grant from our previous company's employee work/life development department. His tagline intrigued me from the first moment I read it: "Always have a perfect bed and a comfortable pairs of shoes, because when you're not in one you're in the other." This was the heart of his story and it stuck all the way through. From the beginning, he had intended it to be a feature film screenplay, but I'm not sure he knew exactly how it was going to get made. It was Patrick who first suggested we get off our butts and make this into a movie. He and his wife have two young children but they both went in head-first, investing lots of time and money to this movie. This was the first of many sacrifices that brought S&S to life, but without Patrick's carpé diem approach, S&S would probably be just a file on Jon's computer.

Jon was nice enough invited me to come on board and rework the script so we spent about 6 months - using free nights and weekends - going through the entire story, adding, subtracting and polishing his already top-notch work. The biggest difficulty at this point was finding the time to write. Personally, I didn't think I had the commitment or willpower to see this thing through. That's how I learned how important a writing partner can be. Obviously there are plenty of techniques on how to follow through on a writing project, but in this case I know that I could not have finished it without a partner like Jon. We were able to push each other to work by setting realistic but strict deadlines. It was like a tag-team match - when one person wasn't feeling up to the task, the other stepped in kept the momentum going. As a first time writer, it also helped to have someone else guiding you every step of the way. We were able to bounce dialogue back and forth and we had the guts to call each other out when something just wasn't working. Writing this screenplay together also helped create a bond that made the rest of the process so much easier. We learned how to communicate, how to compromise and how to trust the other one's judgment.

TC: Essentially, this movie has only three characters, and much of the drama derives from the interplay of the three lead actors. How long did it take to find the leads, and how did you knwo that you'd found the right people for the parts? Did any of the actors know each other before filming began?

MB: Jon and Marie Cecile Anderson (Vicki) first met a few years before this project when he cast her for his short film, "Happy Birthday." They remained friends and when he wrote the first draft of S&S, he definitely had her in mind for the part. He hadn't necessarily mentioned this to me, but the first time I read the screenplay, I was sure it was the case. The producers discussed the possibility of auditioning other actors for the role, but Jon was enthusiastic about sticking with Marie. We all agreed and in the end, we couldn't be happier with her performance. Not only did she deliver a gem of a performance, but she was a huge asset on set as well. Jon's knowledge of her strengths and their openness as close friends helped them in rehearsals and during production. I think she also helped strengthen the bond between Jon and the other main actors as well.

Billy Fenderson (Johnny-boy) and SJ Hannah (Ace) were both hired as a result of a long and arduous casting process. We didn't have the luxury of using a casting director (won't make that mistake again), so the four producers (Patrick, Jon, myself and Niki Janowski) spent 4 straight weekends in a production company's basement seeing hundreds of actors. This took a lot of time and resources, but in the end, allowed Jon to get an extra couple days of work with the actors. Other than read-throughs, it was also our first chance to hear the dialogue aloud, which helped SO much as a writer. We quickly knew which dialogue wasn't working and this allowed us to make a few extra edits before going into production.

All three actors put forth a tremendous amount of work for this film and Jon embraced some interesting techniques to help them become comfortable with the material and with one another. In one scene, Vicki must sing a capella in front of a large crowd of strangers. To rehearse this, Jon took her to the parking lot of a Home Depot and had her go through the entire song and dance in public. As for the guys, we wanted them to have as much off-camera bonding time as possible so we put them in bunk beds for the first two weeks of the shoot. It was pretty silly, but in the end they both said it was beneficial.

TC: One of the things that struck me most about the movie was that Vicki Lions seems to represent chaos, or at the very least chance. If the relationship between Johnny-boy and Ace (at least in the beginning) is largely about turgidity (Johnny-boy obviously being the least flexible, but Ace also contributing to the inflexibility of the relationship by his unwillingness to confide in hsi friend for so long), then it requires the infusion of chaos in order to break the old bonds and form a new relationship. In fact it is Vicki who seems the most unhappy with the rigidity of her life, and it is her desire to break out which propels the narrative in the second half. She gets the boys to reconcile and provides them with clothes, she provides the ruse to get the shoes back, and she provides an implied love interest for Johnny-boy to eliminate the sexual tension between JB and Ace, therefore allowing their relationship to flower in a platonic level.

If this is a film about breaking out of the turgid modern life, then is it possible to create a narrative without an agent of chaos like Vicki? Was the choice to include a character like here actually a necessity of the narrative, or do you think you could have told the story without her?

MB: Very well put, it's nice to know that these things are coming across to audiences. You raise an interesting question and the more I think about it, the more I continue to come back to the point that Vicki - or a character (real or imagined, Fight Club fans) is necessary to the particular story that we were trying to tell. When an audience sees a set of values personified, I think it gives them a better chance to relate to the character. In JB's search to achieve his father's heroic values, Vicki serves as another example of how to fashion his decision-making. Now, Vicki's chaotic actions serve the plot conveniently, but I think her personality has a greater effect on the story because it gives JB another piece of the Murray-puzzle. I think this story is a little more than breaking out of a turgid way of life. To me, it's a story about coming to know our heroes on a relateable level. The reason she's a necessity in this story is that she serves as a guage for JB to move closer to his goal.

When it comes to her as an agent of chaos, I think it should be noted that if you're going to use a character in this way, it's important to treat the him/her/it as you would treat a main character. To sell Vicki as a human being and not just a spice to the story, we put a lot of effort into establishing her as a complex character. We wanted her to have the same self-doubt and baggage that any normal person would have. Vicki isn't exactly a Tyler Durden character - someone whose nonstop, headstrong mission will shake the main character out of his doldrums. She's guided by the Murray-esque principles that Johnny-boy seeks, but she's as vulnerable as anyone when her actions are called into doubt. In the end, I don't think it's the chaos that attracts us to Vicki - it's those moments when she opens up and allows self-doubt and fear to flow through her that we really learn to appreciate and relate to her character.

TC: Why are the shoes blue?

MB: Off the bat, I couldn't actually answer this so I posed the question to Jon since the shoes have been blue from the beginning. He said the bright blue sneakers represent Murray's positive outlook. In this case, blue is the color of progress as it references the blue sky above and in front of us. Since the first draft, Jon described the shoes as "high-top sneakers that boast a lively blue" and that just felt exactly right. We never made the connection to sadness that blue often refers to - it was always a positive color of energy and momentum.

TC: Several of the scenes, especially the forest scenes, were vaguely reminiscent of Stand By Me. Was that movie an influence on S & S at all, or is the similarity purely coincidental?

MB: There was a point during location scouting that Jon and I tossed this question around. Honestly, Stand By Me wasn't overtly influential on us, but I can say that our films definitely share some aspects thematically. S&S is about friendship and how we inherently need to rely on it when times are tough. Whether you've given yourself a perfectly logical reason to be angry with a good friend or whether all logic has left and you're in an entirely unrecognizable situation, I think good friends will blindly reach towards each other. As these characters experience traumatic events, any of their silly conflicts or external constraints are dropped for the sake of unity - and it's a unity that requires no cognitive activity. That instinctual yearning for the ones you trust was a key for to our story. Now, sometimes that need manifests itself in dark, selfish ways, but with good friends it always seems to right itself. This is the story we wanted to tell in S&S and I can certainly understand how that theme relates to Stand By Me.

TC: This film has started to be selected in various film festivals. Tell me a bit about the process for getting in a festival and what festivals you were/will be a part of. Has there been an interest in the film for distributers?

MB: Submitting to film festivals has proven to be a tremendous amount of work. When you're starting from scratch - no stars in front of or behind the camera - it's not easy to get noticed. For the most part, we just sent out dozens of submissions and prayed for responses. As the weeks go by and we learn more (from others and from our own mistakes), we've adapted our methods and it seems to be helping slightly. I've also found that it's incredibly expensive to submit for festivals. If you're not really sure how your film will be received, it's tough to know which festivals will be right for you movie. As a result, we submitted to a lot of big time fests that probably didn't give us much thought. As we get feedback from festivals and audiences, though, it has become easier to focus our efforts on medium-sized or regional festivals that actually are interested in supporting indie film. There are 1001 reasons to put on a film festival and we've been lucky to be accepted in those that have made a serious commitment to using their money and resources to shine the spotlight on films that don't really have a voice.

So far we've screened the film in Florida at the Tallahassee Film Festival and the Sunscreen Film Festival (St. Petersburg), and in California at the Riverside International Film Festival. I must say that for a film that nobody has ever heard of - and from filmmakers across the country - we've seen wonderful turnouts and received some incredible reviews. In June, we'll be showing the film in our own backyard, at the New Jersey International Film Festival in New Brunswick, the Jersey Shore Film Festival in Asbury Park, and the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival. This will be really exciting - a lot like returning to your home field after a long road trip.

As for distributors, we've engaged in some promising communication with interested sales agents and are currently generating buzz directly with distribution companies. If we thought festival submitting was meticulous and soul-crushing then finding the right home for your film is exponentially more difficult. It's like picking a religion on your deathbed - there isn't much time, there are lots of choices, and there's that fear that only one is going to get you into heaven.

TC: I guess it must be talked about, because of my obvious conection to the film, but another striking feature of the movie is the soundtrack. It is a combination of pop music and a score composed by Mathias Hatleskog Tjonn. There are some really good artists in this movie. How did you go about choosing the music, and what was it like working with Mathias? Did you tell him what you were looking for, or did he bring the music to you and you guys sign off on it?

MB: Mathias has been an incredible addition to the S&S team and we're really happy that his hard work is being recognized by audiences. We found him through an ad that we posted on an industry site. This happened at a time when Jon and I were worn out from post-production and thankfully, Mathias put in a ton of work and made this project his baby. He and Jon worked closely together for about a month and it was a pretty effortless collaboration. The two just clicked right away and Mathias' musical sensibilities were right in line for this project. For the most part, he and Jon identified four or five themes that could be applied to each moment and from there, Mathias would put together a MIDI track, present it to Jon and they'd move on from there.

I was on the other front, taking care of the music licensing. This was not as nice of a tale. We began with a basic idea of the musical tone that worked best for this film - indie pop/folk/Americana. From there, we went to SXSW's website and visited the MySpace page of every artist/band that who's genre could potentially fit S&S. It was long, arduous and pretty damn fun. I learned a lot about music (and it's sub- sub- sub-genres) and heard a lot of great bands. When we found one we liked, off went an email, explaining that we don't have much money but we'd love to borrow some tunes. That process helped us put together about half of the soundtrack and the other half was done by going to our friends, asking what bands they know and love and following those leads. Like Mathias' work, audiences have been very complimentary on the soundtrack, so I can certainly say that all the hard work has paid off.

Overall, I'm really proud of the soundtrack and composition as a whole, but most of all I really appreciate how the bands and artists willingly joined the dream, solely for the sake of creating movie that you can tap your feet to. This type of collaboration was right in line with the values of S&S and the message we want to send to audiences and other artists.

TC: You also do editing and various film projects as a day job. How the heck did you find the time to make a movie and work at the same time? What advice could you offer to someone who wants to do something as monumental as making a movie but doesn't have the luxury of quitting their job?

MB: Pulling this project off was no easy task and I do not look forward to following the same path for our next project. Jon and I did all of the writing and editing on nights and weekends during a time when we had few responsibilities other than 10-hour day jobs. Like I mentioned before, the strength of our partnership helped so much when it came to keeping each other's nose to the grindstone. Had we been able to work on this as if it were a full-time job, we could have easily cut the post-production time in half. I think we didn't let this get to us because we decided from the beginning that this was going to be "Murray-style all the way." Sure, with the money and resources of a higher budget project, things would be easier; but since we made a commitment from the beginning to not be wasteful, we could come to terms with the drawbacks much more easily.

This would be my advice for anyone else trying to pull of a similar task: Know and accept your limits from the beginning and don't let yourself lose hope because of those limits. Accepting the reality of the situation gives you power to move freely within its borders. Negative thought or the constant desire for something more has the opposite effect. It turns you into a victim. Now, when I say that I never want to follow this particular path again, I say that because it wasn't easy and I hope that through this film we can earn the funding to work under easier conditions. Honestly though, I'm so proud of this film and I'm so proud of the work we've put in that I can't wait for the next one, no matter what road we end up taking.

TC: What's next? Do you and Jonathan plan on making another movie together? Any ideas? Is it too soon to be talking about this?

MB: No, it's certainly not too soon to be talking about this. We heard that at festivals, this is one of the first questions that will be asked - and there better be an answer. This put a little bit of stress on me in particular because I had put so much of my free time into finishing and promoting S&S, there wasn't any time to even think about a new project. Alas, another benefit to being part of team is that you have an actively creative group that's always ready to discuss new ideas. At this point, we all have individual scripts in development. Some are further along than others, but we're all just hacking away, trying to get something we can all eventually discuss. No one knows which script we'll start production on next, but we're all 100% sure that there will be plenty more projects coming from this team - of all shapes and sizes.