What was your filmmaking background before making Buffalo Boys?
RAY: I started out in the industry as a professional actor. After I graduated from The American Academy of Dramatic Arts – New York I was hired to work on two-major projects, Rendezvous Point, by Korean Director D.K. Lee, which won Best Picture at the CUNY AIRR Film Festival, and Payin’ The Price, which won Best Picture at the HBO Martha’s Vinyard Film Festival. I was very observant during the production of these projects, and became more and more interested the overall process of filmmaking.
Shortly afterward, I met with fellow actors Matt Tester and Mckenzie Trent (and later--cinematographer Jason Montalvo) and we formed Better StirFry Productions in hopes of making shorts that we could use to pad our acting reels. But once I got behind the camera and started shooting my own scripts, I realized I was exactly where I was supposed to be in life.
Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like with your co-writers?
RAY: In 2009, a friend of mine (the young man on whom the main character of Buffalo Boys is based), passed away. This was around the same time that The Better StirFry Team and I had completed a few successful short films and we were looking for new material. I was deeply moved by the story of my friend’s life, and everyone agreed that it would make a fantastic movie.
I researched by interviewing the young man’s family and friends before writing the first draft of the script. It was pretty awful the first time around. But we all still agreed that the story was good if we could just get the script right, so Mckenzie and I teamed up and developed it over the next eight months. About nine or ten drafts in, we solicited the help of my novelist girlfriend, Elana Lott, and she helped polish the script up until we began production.
Writing is one of the most challenging parts of the process. I believe that it’s where most filmmakers go wrong. When you start, there’s nothing but a blank page. When you turn on a camera with the lens cap off, there’s always something happening in front of it already. If you don’t have a great script, you’re just practicing. Mckenzie and I fought a lot during the process. It was a battle. But I wouldn’t do it again any other way, because what we came out with I’m truly proud of.
What was your Kickstarter experience like for raising pre-pro funds?
RAY: We knew from the beginning that we were going to need to be modest, so we only asked for a $1,250 goal to get us through pre-pro. We ended up raising $6,000. Most of this came from family and friends. It was humbling. It gave us the momentum and confidence we needed to go out and raise more from private investors until we reached our final production budget.
What's the upside and downside of using a crowd-funding source?
RAY: Kickstarter is great, and running a campaign is a full-time job. We’ve just launched a new Kickstarter where we’re offering tickets to the World Premiere in NYC, as well as copies of the DVD, all so that we can raise the necessary funds to send the movie to film festivals worldwide.
The upside is that you have the opportunity to not only raise money on a platform that gives you added legitimacy, but to promote your project to the general public as well. The downside is that these platforms are film saturated. This also has a lot to do with the digital filmmaking boom. Everyone and their mother has a DSLR nowadays.
It’s exciting because it democratizes filmmaking and gives great artists the opportunity to produce works they never would have been able to ten years ago. But it’s also terrible because you see a lot of poorly thought out projects appearing on places like Kickstarter.
But in the end people will know the difference when they watch your video and read your story. It’s just frustrating because when some people hear that you’ve got a Kickstarter going, they roll their eyes and remember the fifty other people with mediocre ideas that told them that today.
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?
RAY: We used a two camera setup with the Canon 5D MKII and 5D MKIII. We are the instant gratification generation. I’ve only ever shot on film once. (If there are any filmmakers with 20+ years of experience reading this, I’m sorry for the heart attack).
It’s tough for me to think of anything I don’t like about DSLR filmmaking. It’s fast, cheap, you have instant playback, and with proper color correction and post-production techniques you can end up with very, very beautiful pictures--on TV/Computer screens, but also even small cinema screens. If we had shot Buffalo Boys on super 16mm we’d have spent something like $300,000 on film stock and development alone. That’s 10 times our entire budget.
You wore a lot of hats on this project -- director, writer, producer, actor. What's the upside and the downside of working that way?
RAY: I feel like all indie filmmakers end up doing this. It just comes down to the fact that you don’t have money to hire people, so you end up doing multiple jobs. In my case it’s a little different--the story was very personal to me, so I was one of the screenwriters, and I’m a professionally-trained & experienced actor, so I wanted to continue doing that because I love it.
The upside for me is that I not only got to oversee the project as a Director, but I got to participate more specifically in other ways that I love. The downside is probably the lack of sleep and toll it takes on your body after a year or two of working on a project. We held the wrap party at my house outside of Buffalo and after I made a little speech and thanked everybody--I snuck upstairs and slept for about a week.
What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?
RAY: This is a tough question. I suppose the smartest thing I did was in pre-pro and not production, and that was making sure we had a solid game plan. Production was really a process of just making sure we stuck to that plan while still getting everything we needed creatively.
But I’d say that asking for resources (for free or for very little) whether it be locations, equipment, crew, etc., was the smartest thing I did. Some people have a tendency to not ask for things at the crucial moment. One of the biggest things I learned is that if you have a good idea and charisma, people will believe in you and want to support you in any way they can. That’s not to say you should ever take advantage of that--but you should have the confidence to ask for the things you need to make your project come to life. The worst thing that can happen is that people will say no.
The dumbest thing I did happened on the 3rd or 4th last day of production. I was recently awarded The Colin Powell Fellowship for Leadership and Public Service and had to attend an all-day seminar in NYC the day after we wrapped production. I forgot to pack a suit for this and went one morning before call time to the mall to pick one out. But it turned out that the whole process took forever and even though I was rushing through it, I caused us to be almost two hours late into the schedule. My AD, Tom Quigly was NOT happy about this. We ended up catching up throughout the day, and I learned two important lessons: don’t try to buy a suit in 30 minutes and DON’T piss off your AD by making stupid mistakes.
What's your game plan for distribution of Buffalo Boys and recouping your costs?
RAY: In the end, we just want people to see the film. If that means going to film festivals and no distribution deal then so be it. But I really believe that this film is well written, produced, and acted enough to receive at least some kind of DVD or Netflix distribution.
I’m not going to delude myself--I know that the chances of a first time filmmaker getting a distribution deal are slim, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to try. As of right now, we’re pretty under the radar, so we’re trying to get some press and film festival screenings to establish credibility. Once people in the industry have had a chance to see the film is when we’ll see where we might end up.
And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?
RAY: I haven’t really had the chance to move on to the next big thing yet. Buffalo Boys is still a full-time job for me.
But like I said before--asking for help is a big thing I learned. That, and really take the time to make sure your story is not only well-written, but that is says something (artistically) that you want to say as an individual. In the case of Buffalo Boys, it’s that the consequences of your actions are much more far reaching than you ever might have thought.
And don’t ever forget to treat each member of your production team like the invaluable gear in the machine that they are--from extras to PA’s and your DP. Keep your team happy and the energy on set positive and clear and everything will go much smoother and you’ll get exactly what you need to make a great movie.