What was your filmmaking background before you made the film?
DANIEL: I made two films prior to The Appearance...
My first feature was a 90 mins horror/thriller movie in 16mm titled Twisted Fate, and with a budget of $16K borrowed from a friend. I had no experience or training of any kind in filmmaking prior to this production. As a result, I made a lot of mistakes in production, in storytelling, in direction and in editing, but I learned a great deal. However, it was decent enough to qualify as scary (or interesting) and we sold it to small video-distributor, and made a small profit.
That gave me the incentive to go for the second one; a more ambitious coming-of-age drama, with a million dollar budget. This movie was to be done in Argentina, where I’m from, and mainly funded by the Argentinean Film Institute, but right in the middle of pre-production and using investor’s money, the Institute was intervened by the government with accusations of corruption and all projects were cancelled including mine.
Disheartened and penniless I returned to the US, but I wasn’t going to stop or wait much longer. Practically in the plane on my way back I wrote 14 Ways to Wear Lipstick; a super low-budget dark-comedy that was and official selection at Slamdance and a number of other festivals around the world. 14… was made with $30K and in 35mm. Right after 14… I began planning The Appearance of a Man.
Where did the idea come from to make The Appearance of a Man?
DANIEL: In March 13, 1997, a very strange light formation appeared in the Phoenix sky. Basically there were seven lights in a v-shape, which morphed into different shapes as they flew over Phoenix. Actually I didn’t see the lights that night but I heard the news later, and then the controversy, theories and all kind of explanations in the following days, and weeks.
The whole episode intrigued me to the point that I wanted to do something; a documentary, maybe a movie. I began to ask questions.
One night I was introduced to this gentleman, whom I’ll keep anonymous, but who is an artist here in the Phoenix area. Right away he told me he knew what the lights were along with a fascinating personal story. So I begun to follow his leads and while everyone was wondering whether it was an UFO or a military exercise, I went into a completely different direction.
I went to Mexico, where similar sightings had been reported along with accounts of “alien” encounters and to follow the artist’s leads. After several eyewitness interviews in Phoenix and in Mexico I started realizing that whatever people were seeing and coming in contact with - man or alien, fact of imagination - the experiences these people went through had a mystical, or spiritual dimension, which affected them deeply. But most revealing was the existence of a common pattern in the accounts from Mexico and the accounts from Phoenix.
As bizarre as all these stories were, they were very mysterious and intriguing. There was something paranormal in all the accounts, even something spiritual, something that we can’t just explain with our understanding of science; something that transcended our sense of reality.
What was your process for writing the script?
DANIEL: Typically I don’t write a script until the entire concept is in my head, including beginning, plot points, twists, and the end. I think of many ideas but I also discard most of them.
Whatever story I’m going to tell, it needs to interest me in a profound way. When I have an idea I like I let it mature and I visualize it. I sit in the dark and try to see the movie in my head. Then I ask myself questions, “Do I like this movie?”, “Will I watch a movie like that?”, “Is that the type of movie I typically watch?” “Is that really the story I want to tell and I will put my soul into it?”
None of the questions are complete disqualifiers but rather a way to get to the movie I really want to make. Once I have all the “ingredients” like scenes, plot points, even pieces of dialogue then I begin to write it and I do it as fast as possible.
I didn’t use any particular structure technique for this movie; I believe each story needs to find its own structure to be told effectively, but I did pay attention to narrative twists and visual elements which are crucial to keep the story moving. One thing I didn’t do in this script, and against my own writing process, was to write the last twenty five minutes of the movie. I just shot it with no script. It was too visual to even bother.
How did you fund the film?
DANIEL: It was privately financed in part, and I used points to compensate some of the members of the team. Some crew worked for free. We also got a lot of freebies, such as locations, vehicles, etc.
Free crew in my experience doesn’t work, unless you’re planning your shoot for one or two days. People get tired; have other commitments or just bail because there’s a party somewhere. In some cases it may work; I never had luck with that. In general, I believe, regardless if the person is paid or not, you need to set clear expectations and define his or her job as concretely as possible.
How did you juggle the roles of Director and DP?
DANIEL: I love the camera. I love to play with angles, movement and lighting, so to me it’s something very natural. The challenge is to be able to pay attention to exposure, focus, framing, composition and movement and also judge the actors’ performance, but that’s why you shoot 17 takes ;).
The fact is that I can actually pay attention to the acting as well. I rarely had to review the takes but I’ve done it a few times. For a number of scenes in the movie I had another DP, Vince Pascoe. Vince is great, but regardless of the DP, you still need to have a communication with him/her to get what you need.
I think visually and I have a strong sense of angles and camera positions, but many times I go by intuition so I need to grab the camera and explore possibilities. I tend to storyboard everything I shoot and that helps me visualize the flow of the scene, but many times a particular location or situation may give me new ideas, so I go with that.
The point is I want to be free to change my mind as I wish and that lack of “sticking with the plan” frustrates many DPs. I had a great lighting technician, Geoff Nangle, who is one of the most resourceful guys I know. He can hang a light from the sky.
What are the advantages of editing the film yourself? Disadvantages?
DANIEL: The obvious answer it that when you edit the film yourself you are in total control of the storytelling, exactly as you envision it. You get to see and experiment with every single frame of footage you shot.
Of course, you can probably achieve the same picture working closely with a seasoned editor. But in order to successfully edit your own film you need to have the courage to throw away your best shots if they don’t serve the movement of the story. Sometimes you love a shot and use it even though in context it doesn’t work.
It’s crucial also, if you’re going to edit your own film, to listen to your instincts; don’t ask for advice or an opinion on every cut. One advice when you ask for opinions: Many times you suspect that something doesn’t work. If the opinions I get confirm my suspicions then I know I have to work on that. Once you have the first draft, get as many opinions as you can; don’t change something because one person pointed something out. You should be the final judge.
The main disadvantage of doing it alone is that you don’t have another point of view to explore different possibilities and ideas. The other issue is that, after looking at a scene for a thousand times it begins to lose its effect, to the point that you don’t know anymore if it works or not.
But if you want to edit yourself, work fast, be critical, explore different combinations, follow your instincts and get that first draft in front of a critical audience quickly.
What did you learn from making the film that you can take to other projects?
DANIEL: From a production point of view you need to parallelize your productions activities as much as possible. Pick a capable and skillful team. As a whole, your team (production and technical) should have all the skills needed to complete the picture. Every team member should be given well defined tasks to work on and work in parallel.
Planning, budgeting and realistic scheduling is key; if you can’t do it yourself, get experienced people in that area. Pre-production and Filming is chaotic. Post-Production is complex. For an independent filmmaker on a low budget it is crucial not to go through any of the production phases alone. Post-production is brainy and technical and also incredibly time consuming, it’s crucial that your team includes highly technical people for the post.
Main photography may be over, but I shot and additional fifty hours of footage during the post-production phase. All phases are important but post-production is very critical to the successes of your film. This is where the story takes shape, where bad acting is corrected, where problems are fixed. Especially in a digital era, a great deal of work, such as compositions, effects, music, sound design, is done in post. This is where I would allocate a great deal of my budget and human resources.
I think it’s crucial, in order to grow as a filmmaker, to be your own strict critic; I believe that is the only way to grow. Like in many other artistic activities, you’re sharing the deepest parts of who you are and where you come from through your work, and critiques and rejections can sometimes hurt.
But being hurt doesn’t help you grow, instead, learn from it, get better, perfect your craft, go and make another film.