|INTERVIEWS - Michael Covert|
Michael Covert has achieved something that not many filmmakers are able to do. He has made a film that's actually funny. His film, DIRT, is funny in a nice way that doesn't try too hard. It's funny in a way that allows you to care about the character while still laughing at their misfortunes. It's funny in a way that makes you want to see the film again. It's funny in a way that you really wish more films were funny. He has also achieved something that may be even harder for filmmakers. He has secured theatrical distribution for his independent film. When I say independent film, I really mean independent film, in the best way possible. They made it themselves. Here's what he has to say about it.
How does the writing process for a comedy differ from the writing process for a drama? Is there any way to test physical comedy during the writing process, or do you just have to trust that it will be funny when you shoot it?
Writing drama vs comedy... hhmmm, well for one everybody knows you need more words for comedy. Besides that I can see no difference in writing the two. Comedy, I think, is such the matter of taste or lack of it. I find the comedy that I like tends to be a bit off, situations that are as likely to make people say "huh" as they are to make them laugh. I also like to play the humor truthfully, not for the gag. When people first read DIRT they thought it was like an episode of HeeHaw. We had to explain to them that these people were real, yes, their situation was a bit odd and at times extreme but it had to played sincerely, not for a laugh.... I also think that the two go hand in hand. You cannot have drama without humor, it flattens or becomes melodramatic. And humor without drama is not involving for an audience... Testing physical humor. You can imagine it all you want in your head, but I don't you really know what will happen or how funny something might be until it is all said and done. Cast it right and hope...
You play the older brother in the film. Were you the oldest in your family, and did you write this part for yourself, or did the casting just work out this way?
I am the youngest. I kinda sorta wrote it for myself but Tracy and I actually didn't know who was going to play what part until the day before we started shooting. We kept swapping back and forth in the short rehearsal process and it worked out the way it did.
You made the decision to shoot on Super 16mm film, and the picture quality is beautiful. Any advise for someone stuck on the decision to shoot digital or film, or is it a non-issue by this point?
Digital is becoming so accepted by audiences these days, that if the project lends itself to it, do it. I think the fear of digital is that people shoot before they are ready to. I mean, it used to be the cost of shooting on film meant it was much harder to make things and I think because of this people really worked on the script to get it perfect before they committed that kind of cash. I think what happens all too often now is someone finishes a script and thinks it done and ready to shoot and grabs a digital camera and wonders what the mess is they have in their hands at the end of the day... Get the script perfect first... Also I feel a lot of filmmakers don't really take the time to know the pros and cons of the mediums before filming. So many people shoot on digital and then asks the techs in post to make it look like film. Why not learn what the nuances of digital are and embrace them, incorporate them into the look of the film. Also digital can be harder to shoot than film. Test and test some more, it will be cheaper in the long run than getting into a production and backing up to fix a problem.
You have mentioned that the crew for the film was very small, with many people doing multiple jobs. What were the advantages and disadvantages of a small crew?
Small crews are great because you save on food. They suck because, well, there is a hell of a lot of work to do. But the logistics behind a smaller crew does make it easier to move at times. But I prefer all the hands I can get.
The location for the film was great, and you mentioned that the cooperation from the town was incredible. Would you advise young filmmakers to seek out locations, or stick to the control of a studio set?
I think the control you have on a studio set corresponds to the capitol you have in your pocket. If you can find locations that allow you to shoot for free and without fire and police and permits, and if the location is under a flight line or some other noise making situation... I just don't see how you beat free. Studio sets tend to be very expensive... On DIRT we spent a total of $200 on location fees for almost seven weeks of principle. We had to do a day's worth of pickups back here in LA and the fireman alone cost us more than that - for one day. And the $200... we spent that on a house we burned to the ground.
Many films and filmmakers are relying on the internet to help with the promotion of their films. In what ways, if any, has the internet helped DIRT?
We're so broke the only way we can promote the film is via the net. A film marketing professor at USC said that the most effective way to advertise a film is through word of mouth. I think the internet is electronic word of mouth... Also, we found all of our source cue music over the net for $100 a song. In movie terms that's akin to free.
DIRT played the film festival circuit. What relevance do film festivals have on the current independent film scene, beyond a promotional role?
The big film festivals can make a film. You can find distribution and hit it fat... the smaller film fests are just a good time.
I have a lot to say on film fests but... not right now.
The influence of films like Raising Arizona were noticeable in DIRT. How do you draw inspiration from the past, while still bringing something new to the film arena?
Raising Arizona is one of my favorite films. I think it's impossible to ignore the influence of prominent films. The thing you must do is to play upon what others have done, to take it to a different level and make it your own. To see the magic and daring of another and have that bolster you courage and commitment in what you do. The medium of film is an expensive one to fail in, but in order to really achieve something you must have that freedom to fail... the fine line between lunacy and genius.
DIRT will see a theatrical release in 2004. With DVD and home video becoming increasingly popular, is a theatrical release simply a commercial for the DVD, or do you see more value?
There were 84 theatrical releases in the last two months of 2003. With so many movies competing it becomes difficult to make it with a small theatrical release, especially with the mindset that if the movie doesn't pull stellar numbers the first weekend it will be pulled. As I said above word of mouth is the number one marketing tool, how do you get word of mouth in one weekend? A movie like My Big Fat Greek Wedding had a lot of support behind it (cash). It played in theatres forever before it was the hit that it became. Most small movies can't do this. Look at all the indies that were wonderful movies but didn't make it to the level they should have... Yes, I think a number of theatrical releases are very expensive commercials for the home box office release. The way of thinking now is that distributers bank on the neophyte filmmakers wanting the holy grail of theatrical release. They use this to structure the deal so weighted on their end that unless the film hits one out of the park, the filmmakers will never see a dime besides the advance, if they even got that.
To find out more about DIRT, please visit the official page.
writer/director of Cheaters
writer/director of Maryam
writer/director of Wet Hot American Summer
director of Gigantic: A Tale Of Two Johns
co-director/writer/co-star of Dirt