Artist interview: independent filmmaker James Crisp
James is an award-winning film writer and director from New Zealand. His first independent short film, ‘The Good Neighbour’ was selected and screened at numerous festivals in Australia, America, Asia and Europe. James' latest offering 12.12.12. was produced by Pete Ireland and is appearing in FirstGlance Film Festival Los Angeles 2018. Unfortunately, as I was editing this interview and putting it up on the Follow Magazine website, the news was rolling in about the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. The issues that James is exploring are more relevant than ever.
You’re based in New Zealand but your short film 12.12.12 is a reaction to the Sandy Hook massacre in the United States. Why did you tackle a tragedy on the other side of the world?
I can understand how people find themselves in most situations, whether positive or negative and why they act in particular ways. So, while I can make sense of most situations, every now and then something will occur that I can’t understand at all and it’s unsettling to me. I have found the best way for me to make sense of things when this happens is to write. It’s a type of therapy I guess. When I heard about the tragedy at Sandy Hook I couldn’t comprehend how any person could arrive at the conclusion to take this type of action, in any way at all. So, it didn’t take too long before I found myself staring at a blank page trying to figure it out.
Your previous film ‘The Good Neighbour’ was also told in response to a violent act. Are you worried about being defined by the subject matter you address?
Not at all. I’ve got two comedy shorts, two comedy series pilots and a pile of sketches sitting in the “to make” pile, as well as a couple of other stories I’m working on that aren’t based on tragic events. I’d love to direct someone else’s script one day, too. It just happened that The Good Neighbour and 12.12.12 resonated with people more and made the most sense to move forward with at the time. I kept saying that I’d definitely make a comedy after depressing everyone so much with The Good Neighbour but that obviously didn’t happen…
12.12.12 is the tale of two disenfranchised brothers who are trying to define their own legacy. How did you settle on this particular way into the story of Sandy Hook?
With controversial subject matters, the audience needs a way to relate to the characters and buy into the story. So, I decided early that the film had to be about something else other than solely gun violence and that the protagonist couldn’t be the instigator. A direct adaptation of the events that took place in Sandy Hook wouldn’t work because no matter how you expressed the character’s motivations, very few people would be able to relate or invest in the story. I had to find a story angle that was relatable and base it in a contemporary world where gun violence wasn’t as prevalent as it is now but was still a reality. Recalling other such events, the instigators didn’t always act alone and I found myself asking how do two people reach this decision? While trying to figure out the answer, a question popped into my head, what if one of them was actually reluctant? What if, thinking they knew the person well enough to believe it was just fantasy talk and played along long to the point they unwittingly find themselves a part of the reality? And in what sort of dynamic could that be possible? Eventually, I began to focus on relationship dynamics and one day found myself in a family situation where I had to make a choice and potentially do something I didn’t want to. We all have to do it in our lives, decide to be selfish or selfless and it is in those environments where we usually have to do it the most. It then occurred to me what if you took that to the extreme? The light bulb went off and the film became about family and how far one is willing to sacrifice their own morals and beliefs for them before it is too late.
Where was 12.12.12 filmed?
12.12.12 was filmed in a suburb about an hour west of Sydney, Australia called Penrith. The film’s producer Pete Ireland, who currently lives in Sydney but was born and raised in Penrith, quickly identified the area could work as a substitute for a place in the United States. The idea was California in the winter and thanks to Pete, who did an incredible job throughout the whole production, and his connections, we enjoyed a tremendous amount of support and help to make that happen.
What challenges did you have to confront in production?
Producing a complex story with a small budget while still wanting to achieve high production values is quite confronting in itself. Trying to decide if this is the right story to call in all your favours on and hoping to convince people to come on board for such a serious subject matter is as well. But as I mentioned earlier, thankfully most people responded to the story very well and were more than happy to contribute. But time, as always, is a filmmaker’s enemy and naturally, there were issues that caused delays and these were probably the biggest challenges. We were able to work through the majority of those and managed to get everything shot. The only pickup shots needed were basic and without dialogue, which is always a bonus.
How did you fund the project?
After The Good Neighbour, I returned to my hometown of Invercargill, where I worked in quite a small production unit. There was only two of us at the beginning, so we had to cover several roles on multiple projects. I quickly decided that I would only stay in the role for 3 years, learn as much as I could about executing other production roles, gain more experience and get better at the skills I want to focus on and also save as much money as I could. When the three years was up I had saved enough to move back to Sydney and produce the film without relying on any other sources of funding.
Do you need to be accountable to your stakeholders? What sort of updates do they require from you?
Obviously, being the sole investor I’m ultimately accountable to myself. But that doesn’t mean I take it any less seriously. In a way, I feel even more accountable holding so many key roles and responsibility to all the cast, crew and supporters who I was able, through the story and my vision for it I guess, convince to give up their time and energy to be a part of. While it is obviously a luxury not having to explain every decision or solution to someone, we still set deadlines and worked hard at not blowing out the budget. We had $30,000AUD to spend and managed to come in at $26,000AUD and the only production delay was in post. Through Pete’s connections, we were able to secure a fantastic post sound team and facility, the only catch was because we got a deal we had to fit into their schedule. This caused only a slight delay and was totally worth given how the film sounds, which was a really important aspect.
You’ve had success at film festivals with ‘The Good Neighbour’, what opportunities open up for you when you start to win festival awards?
The carrot often used to get you to work on a project for free is “it’ll look good on your CV”. But the truth is the thing that looks good on your CV is festivals and awards. Whether it be in the creative or corporate arena, when you are applying for funding, pitching an idea or applying for a job, festivals and especially awards help you stick out from the crowd. It shows that not only can you do the job, make the movie or whatever, but also that you can do it at a level that makes you stand out and that more often than not is what they are looking for.
Have you developed a marketing strategy for 12.12.12? What does that look like?
We have followed a traditional short film marketing/distribution strategy so far, entering festivals, the majority of which have online/public screening restrictions and providing what is required for those. Such as a press kit, trailer etc. We will work to decide on a public strategy when the time approaches for it to be finally released online. We keep people updated via social media about it appearing in festivals as the news comes, which can help slowly build a small audience. But since it can be so long between those events and it being available online, you need to build the momentum slowly, as there’d be no point in peaking interest in it before it can be seen.
How early in the filmmaking process do you start to think about who your audience is and how you’re going to get your story in front of that audience?
To answer the first part, never. This might sound selfish but I make films for me, films that I like and hope that what talent I have as a storyteller will then attract an audience. So to get my stories in front of an audience I try to tell stories that are compelling and create characters that can be invested in and rooted for however long of a journey we go on. Once I finish trying that by making the movie I just put it out there and start watching or listening to the responses. Which is always interesting given the subjects I have broached so far…
Once 12.12.12 has finished appearing in festivals where will people be able to see it?
Our Facebook page www.facebook.com/choppyproductions will be the best place to go for updates. It is projecting to be available online by the end of this year and will most likely be released on our Vimeo channel http://vimeo.com/choppyproductions
What are you working on next?
That’s a very good question, I’m currently working that out now while waiting to see how 12.12.12 fares on the festival circuit and replenish my resources. I would love to say a comedy… However, I have just started working on an idea, about two people again, who lives change forever when an event occurs on the night they attempt to escape a religious cult. There haven’t been too many laughs so far… But I am excited about the scope of the story and wouldn’t be surprised if it is what I focus on in the near future.