[Editor’s Note: To read Part 1 of this article series on Michael Curtis, please click here. -JH]
Michael Curtis had been a successful and award-winning post production editor before launching into full film productions for a broad range of clients through his company EditLab. Several years ago he formed a film collaborative, Filmstigator, to draw together fellow creatives and produce independent films.
“After years of working as a television editor and producer,” Curtis explains, “I yearned to branch out and start creating the kinds of personal films I’d never had a chance to make before—the kinds of films that had originally drawn me to the industry. I wondered if there were others out there like me, and I began actively looking for them.”
Getting the right people to participate in Filmstigator was not difficult. His years in the industry put him in contact with skilled people in all areas of film and television production and for the projects he supervised at his company, EditLab. He also reached outside this comfortable circle to find others interested in contributing to Filmstigator projects.
Forming the story for Gift
Curtis found his scriptwriter, Alex Whitmer, in Mexico, where Alex was teaching English. The draft of the story naturally went through several revisions. The story involves a troubled boy, Aaron, who has experienced an unexplained traumatic event or series of events; this is only vaguely hinted at cinematically. Into the boy’s life comes a girl, Zoe, who tries to make friends and makes a sincere effort to find out what is troubling him. The short progresses with Zoe trying to draw Aaron out and have him open up. Zoe discovers Aaron typing on vintage Underwood typewriter without any paper, and she has to find out why.
“I tend to be more comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity as a director than I am with black and white answers,” Curtis explains. “I prefer the questions, the mysteries. We all have things that frighten us, things we need to own up to and confront—both in ourselves and in others. We all have times we need to take chances and risk trusting another person.”
Building the Cast and Crew
While the script of Gift was essentially complete, Curtis realized he would have to self-fund the short film, and count on the sweat equity of his collaborators.
“I didn’t want to delay production to do a three month crowd-funding project, and I didn’t feel I had the social following for crowdfunding to have a high probability for success,” Curtis admits.
His first assistant director, Melissa Bowers, contributed her time. His director of photography, Tom Pritchard did receive compensation. Two RED Epics cinema cameras were provided for principal photography. Curtis felt blessed to get composer Ben Goldberg to write the music for the film. Goldberg has written the score for four feature films, and has won numerous awards for the music he composed for Broadway productions, film shorts and the HBO series, Quality of Mercy.
From his years of experience on the commercial side, Curtis knew other production people needed to be involved if the film was to look and sound right. He brought in Tom Boisseau to handle the sound equipment. There were makeup artists, grip and electric crew, and production assistants.
For the two principal child actors of Zoe and Aaron, Curtis turned to Stilwell Casting in Atlanta and put out a casting call. Just a few minutes spent with Katherine Shelper (Hallmark Hall of Fame’s Front of the Class, Tyler Perry’s Single Mom’s Club) convinced him she was perfect for the role of Zoe. Curtis was also impressed with Royce Mann (The Lookalike, Boy in the Box) who had also starred in an impressive list of theater and film productions.
Scouting locations and principal photography
The script required several exterior locations, one of which featured a small storage building where Aaron keeps his mysterious typewriter. This set was found in Milledgeville, Georgia northeast of Macon. Curtis also wanted to shoot some pivotal scenes on Driftwood Beach on Jekyll Island off the Georgia coast.
While pre-production took months of planning and execution, filming was scheduled for just six days over three weekends. That was the plan and that is actually what happened, with only a half-day pickup shoot afterward. The one thing a film crew has no control over is the weather, and here Curtis and his crew were truly blessed. The early morning and late afternoon lighting was ideal for the shots on the beach.
“Sometimes actual shooting is almost a relief once you get to it,” Curtis confesses, “compared to the stress and race-to-the-wire preparation with schedules, costumes, props, storyboards, permits, locations and shot lists and everything else that has to be squared away by the time shooting starts.”
“It’s a beautiful place,” Curtis says of Driftwood Beach, “and we were shooting nothing but exteriors the whole weekend. We were quite fortunate with weather. Across the board, I have to say we really got lucky with great weather throughout production.”
Post-production and the film festival gauntlet
The next step in the film’s production was editing. This was an area where Curtis had vast experience and he enjoyed this stage of the film’s progress. It is an art to take the raw footage, review it and extract the essential segments that move the story forward at a logical pace.
Sound design, editing and final mix were performed by Aaron Bowdoin and Brian Kahanek. Numerous special effects needed to be incorporated. The essentially completed film was sent to Ben Goldberg for him to compose the atmospheric music score. The last portion of editing was color grading the entire film.
Film festivals are virtually the only venue for showing a new independent film, and it is a vital part of the filmmaker’s life that others, including his peers, see the film. Curtis cautions this can involve a lot more work than a new filmmaker may realize.
“I underestimated how much time and energy it would take to manage all the submissions, emails, phone calls, and the wide array of deliverables, both print and film, required for various venues,” Curtis admits. “One challenge is that no two festivals are alike. They’ll all have at least a few things you’ll need to customize each time. Know that going in.”
He does have some words of advice for other microfilmmakers who want to submit their cinematic creation to film festivals:
“Building your film’s submission package on a site like Withoutabox or FilmFreeway goes a long way toward streamlining the festival entry process.”
“Gift” received five film festival awards in 2014. It is scheduled to be shown at Festival de Cannes – Court Métrage in May 2015.
You can learn more about Michael Curtis’s Filmstigator at http://filmstigator.org/.