Wednesday, December 24, 2008


I usually make dark movies.

Equilibrium (2000) deals with a man and woman in a turbulent, dishonest relationship, lust, and nightmares.

Orpheus (2000) retells the myth of the artist obsessing over his muse and seeking her out, only to reject her.

House of the Insect (2001) deals with a man who is coming to terms with his alcoholism, and accepts it rather than
seeking a 'cure'.

Judith (2003) deals with an artist/muse relationship of manipulation and control to the point of impotency, decapitation and paranoia.

Kalipolis (2004), considerably lighter than all the others, deals with a poet leaving NYC behind (along with a mysterious past) while a young girl arrives in the city for the first time, full of optimism.

Shutterbug, as a feature, followed similar orpheic themes of artist/muse, but I felt there should be a lighter, more optimistic ending. After all, the script had been inspired by love. As we entered production, I was not satisfied with the ending. As we shot, the lobes in the back of my brain were twisting in search of this new finalé. Sometimes it hurt.

Excited, stressed and eager, the shoot began, scheduled for 5 weeks.

We started slowly, mid week, just Rossana, Nando and I, shooting handheld in the city. The three of us traveled around: Chinatown, the financial district, Wall Street, Ground Zero, Midtown, Koreatown, the West Village, getting shots of Nando as Alex, the photographer, shooting the city. We interacted with many people - New Yorkers, store owners, tourists, immigrants, homeless people... and got a lot of documentary style material. Nando's great ease at being himself on camera, and being natural with people, helped achieve some great scenes.

We were very meticulous with releases, getting most people to sign. Many shots we stole - including those downtown where filming permits are not issued easily.

Ultimately many of the scenes we shot those first 2 days were cut from the final film because of a) lack of story relevance and b) the style was so different from the rest of the movie - it really felt like doc stuff. Maybe it'll make the DVDs deleted scenes! But the point was to start slowly. To ease into it. I hadn't directed a narrative in 2 years, and we were shaking off the dust.

The weekend arrived and we prepared to go Upstate to Nando's gorgeous three-story, red brick, gothic-style house in Athens, New York. The leaves of all the trees were turning golden, set ablaze by the slanting sun. We shot the most surreal of the scenes here, during the day, and then a lot of exterior green-screen shots. Nando has five wonderful kids, and they all helped out eagerly. It was great fun.

At night, we moved across the road to Nando's friend and neighbor Klaus Bock. Klaus had been sent our dolly parts (skateboard wheels, bearings, handles etc) and cut a piece of wood and put the whole thing together. When we arrived and I saw the dolly my heart leaped. Step aside Matthews! We got 30 feet of straight PVC track from home depot and we were rolling (and tracking)!

Next we shot a car crash on Klaus' property. I'm not going to give away how we did it, but it involved burning various car pieces that were supplied by the late Anthony Puorro who unfortunately passed away a year later. He also supplied copious amounts of beer which were much appreciated. I think I can make a movie without a full crew, but not without beer. Copious amounts of it, preferably. We burnt everything, shot the scenes, then drank.

Generally the whole community of Athens helped us make these scenes successful and I am indebted to them.

The next day Rossana, Brett and I played soccer with Nando's daughters Malikai and Miana before heading back to the city.

We had one day of pre-pro to line up some locations. We studied the huge production board that Rossana had made with scene-strips stuck with velcro on a timeline. The first leg of the city shoot would be all exteriors, to try and get the most of the good weather and gorgeous light. We lined up what I thought were the most important or difficult scenes to shoot first - as many exteriors as possible, fearing the ominous approach of December. First up were scene in the West Village.

Nando's day would start with a three hour long drive down to the city, from Athens, New York where he lives. He was simultaneously overseeing the remodelling of a house just outside the city. He would be outside my door at 8:00am. Despite having just dealt with frustrating electricians, carpenters and plumbers, he would still arrive with a smile on his face and plenty of energy. Rossana and I would pile in with all the gear - an inconspicuous photo backpack with the HVX, tripod, dolly and track, a few lights, ditty bag and the prop box. A binder overflowing with permits, shotlists, script pages, letters and notes was permanently wedged under my arm. By the end of the shoot the binder had disintegrated. It was bacon, egg and cheese on a roll and we were on the road.

Brett would drive in from New Jersey, toting with him more lights and mics courtesy of his father, Ralph Molé and Windfall Productions, and an occasional helper. We would meet at the location and the first challenge was always parking. Even with the permits, it's a challenge to find a parking spot in NYC, never mind one near the location. Somehow we still accumulated parking tickets. Ok, somehow Brett accumulated parking tickets. Near the end of the shoot he revealed to me a glove compartment stuffed full of bright orange envelopes!

The first couple of weeks went smoothly. We had a schedule, locations and permits in place and roles all cast. Photographer Michael Radassao tagged along on certain days, getting some great production stills. The light was perfect - we got some gorgeous shots of the west village with golden sunlight filtering through yellow leaved trees, slanting at that perfect Fall angle, slashing across a face, glinting off the concrete and bouncing back up to soften.

We shot in the West Village, East Village, Williamsburg, Midtown, Soho, the Lower East Side, and Battery Park City. I think the original script had over 30 locations. Most were in place - being bars owned by friends, businesses of former employers, and apartments of friends and friends of friends... but a few locations still eluded me.

For example, a diner. I could not afford the lowest rates that most diner owners were demanding. Being Greek, I was pretty disappointed by this. Especially since a high end restaurant had been extremely gracious in offering its location, food and staff to be in the movie for less than what it costs for a four person meal. Thank you Strip House on twelfth street. In any case, we tried to shoot in a couple of diners incognito, but got shut down. We finally managed to shoot in a lovely diner on Smith street in Brooklyn owned by a Greek Cypriot family of refugees from Rizokarpaso in Cyprus (which is now illegally occupied by the Turkish army). But the location proved to be too busy - not as visually interesting as I hoped, and I had to push the scenes back for a re-shoot and figure out a new setting for them.

It was the start of a long process of shuffling and reshuffling the shooting schedule on the production board while we were shooting. We were making progress, but we were also consistently pushing scenes back as we went along.

The day/exterior scenes went well. The weather was kind. No rain - great light. Apollo was smiling on us! Probably because he's mentioned in the movie.

We moved on to night/exteriors. Now Nando would work on the house all day, then drive down and shoot with us all night... Don't ask me when he slept. The main body of the night shoot was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, under the BQE and in various industrial looking side streets. We weren't bothered by anyone... it was quiet and there were no problems. Save maybe that one night when the pipe-wielding crackhead threatened us under the BQE. While all of us guys prepared to fight him off, Rossana just laughed and smiled and calmed him down sending him off into the early morning darkness!

One of the most challenging scenes was the shoot on the Williamsburg Bridge. The scene involves Nando as Alex, finding that the bridge has been closed off to cars and pedestrians. But he gets past the barriers and decides to cross it anyway. On his way over he is met by a gang of skateboarders who try to mug him, he escapes them and they give chase across the whole bridge. The Department Of Transportation was very helpful in giving us permits to shoot - but we were not allowed to block any traffic or pedestrians. So we had to cheat the whole chase scene.

Rossana and I had walked the bridge and scouted it out beforehand. I had never directed an action scene or chase sequence, so we discussed extensively how to do it. Rossana came up with a shot list and order of how to structure the scene between the hunters and the hunted, and also a way to light the characters effectively with portable lights (because we were not getting a good light level on the walkway). To make matters worse, I wanted to have the camera float near the ground as the chase happened, so we had to figure out a way to mount the camera on a bike.

Nando brought down a real 'Bridge Closed' sign from a friend upstate which we place at the opening of the bridge for a few seconds to get a shot, and hoped no one would see us!

We started shooting after 8pm when pedestrian traffic had died down. But there were still a considerable amount of pedestrians to be avoided - who would appear in the distance and we would have to wait 3 minutes or more for them to walk by us, and out of shot. When I could, I would place the actors between the camera and the pedestrian in the background to solve the problem. But then there were the bike messengers on their way to or from Manhattan - who whizzed by us without warning, almost smashing into us (or other pedestrians for that matter). Those guys are nuts.

It was a long night of running (for Nando mostly) in freezing windy November weather at the top of the bridge... A few light stunts that the skaters pulled off went really well, and some tricky shooting, made the scene. We were ultimately successful so we went for beer and pizza in Brooklyn. I love the joints where you can get a small free pie with a beer - such a cheap and entertaining way to satisfy a hungry, tired crew!

Stay tuned for more production stories next time...

Saturday, November 22, 2008


The purpose of this blog is to share with the world the unique process and experience of making a low budget feature film. It’s a story of dedication and perseverance despite all odds. The film in question is Shutterbug.

Shutterbug is an independent, self-funded, no/low budget feature film shot entirely on location in New York City. As I write this, the film is in the final stages of post-production. There are various looming festival deadlines we need to meet.

The making of Shutterbug will interest many indie filmmakers who are turning to the internet for marketing and publicity. It will also interest movie buffs and anyone with an interest of what goes on behind the scenes. I hope that it will serve as a great inside view to what no/low budget filmmakers are dealing with in their productions, specifically at a time when the independent film industry is in difficult spot as many smaller distribution companies have folded and art-house theaters are struggling.

My parents are filmmakers, and I remember once finding a daily production log for one of their productions from the seventies. My mother would write about what happened on set, problems, various situations including intriguing details about the dynamics between the cast, crew and director. So I will approach this blog as an honest production log that anyone will identify with. With that said, I have some catching up to do as it’s more of a recollection! Here goes…

Shutterbug was conceived partly out of frustration. By 2004 - when I graduated film school (SVA) and had about ten short films under my belt - I was used to just picking up a camera, calling some friends and actors and making a movie. I was older than most my fellow graduates and was fuelled by a burning desire to make movies. I felt the time had come to make a feature film.

I wrote a script, made an eye-catching business plan including a DVD with pre-visualizations of scenes and character portraits, and together with my friend Shawn Rice , we started pitching to potential investors. Things went pretty well. We met quite a few people and generated interest. But for various reasons (that I won’t go into here) our efforts were interrupted and we lost all momentum. And over a year had gone by. Well in a goddam year I could have shot and cut the movie! So do you spend time trying to raise hundreds of thousands for a real budget, or just pick up a camera and shoot?

I picked up a camera.

It’s 2006. Together with co-producer and collaborator Rossana Rizzo , we invested in HD equipment, mainly the revolutionary Panasonic HVX-200. I wrote another script, this time utilizing locations that I knew we had access to for free or cheap in New York City. We recruited Nando Del Castillo , long time friend and collaborator – a striking actor that I had worked with on various shorts – Brett Molé, a film school friend and vastly talented filmmaker, and also Tom Greenman, an actor/producer who handled all our SAG issues and paperwork.

I mustered some savings, and armed with credit cards, we made a plan.


Shutterbug is the story of Alex, a photographer who is frustrated with his life, who is tired of meaningless fashion shoots, and who sets off to shoot his own work. When shooting the sunrise one morning, he looks into the sun and hurts his eyes. He starts seeing spots and blurs. When the blurs turn into a face… and then a person… a beautiful woman… the film takes a supernatural twist. Alex sets off on a journey to discover who this apparition is. A journey that takes him into the dark underbelly of New York City.

The film is based on a ‘Dante’s Inferno’ concept. The protagonist journeys through various circles of hell (being Brooklyn by night!) on an odyssey… following a muse.


Nando Del Castillo was to play the lead, Alex. Brett took on the best friend role of a frustrated writer. I cast many other actors with whom I had been lucky to work with before and had been greatly impressed with – Doug Barron, Frank Cadillac, Anna Gutto, Ivo Velon. For the rest we had to turn to casting sessions.

I love casting. It’s an incredible process of meeting hundreds of actors, who although might not be right for the specific roles of the current project, form a huge database to draw from for future films.

We were searching for a big supporting cast of about thirty people, not including a various extras. And we had no Casting Director – just the internet. I put casting notices on NY – a great resource,, shooting people and a few others I can’t remember… Being on a tight budget, I was looking for mainly non-union talent who were willing to work for free, but did not limit myself to that.

Casting took weeks of seeing literally hundreds of actors, scheduling them in timeslots and having them read with Nando and Brett. We held casting sessions in a basement night-club in the east village (which will remain nameless!). It was days of meeting new faces, experiencing talent, and meeting a myriad of characters.

New York is a goldmine of daring actors and it wasn’t long before we found a great cast. The most rewarding experience in casting is when an actor enters the room and the energy shifts. When it shifts in the right direction (for the role) then it’s elating. Two such discoveries were Ariel Blue Sky and Stanislava Stoyanova.


What crew? The four of us were the crew – Rossana and I shooting, Brett on sound and lights, Nando on practically everything else. We worked out of Nando’s van, which was quickly dubbed ‘the millennium falcon,’ driving around NYC with gear and crew in tow.
Nando has five kids, so his van is what he used to transport them, having made many road trips to Florida with the whole family. We took out the back seats and cleared space for our limited gear, a few lights, wooden dolly with pvc track, tripod, prop box, food (including a crock-pot that was turned on as soon as we got to the location to start cooking the food…) and other random items needed for the day’s filming. Nando drove, and I sat in the co-driver’s seat armed with an overflowing production folder. The others rode in the back seat, and Brett drove his own car.

We had wheels.

On days when scheduling was an issue, or at a sensitive location with a hard-out, we had good friends and colleagues come on board to help: Kat Rohrer of Greenkat Productions, Jonathan Tripp - fellow filmmaker from SVA, Will Hogan, David Anthony and a few others. Everybody gave up valuable work and time to pitch in, bringing skills and equipment as well as good will.


As casting continued, we all set off to collect props. We had no art director or production designer. Brett and I drove out to New Jersey and scoured flea markets on cold, sunny fall days in search of the right props, haggling with vendors. We got a clawed glove, a dummy camera and flash, various trinkets for a psychic’s parlor,

Rossana picked up other stuff from any NYC filmmaker’s prop haven: Canal Street. She found a crystal ball, specialized light fixtures, cloths and portable battery operated lights that would save us lighting rental fees.

Nando asked for favors from friends upstate and acquired a Road Closed sign, a neon beer sign, and recruited his friend and neighbour, Klaus to build us our dolly.

Locations were another issue. Fortunately, with a few years of living in NYC, I had some friends who were willing enough to lend us their private or commercial spaces for a limited time to shoot in, or find willing friends of friends with apartments and bars. Having made many shorts here too, I was used to approaching proprietors and seeking favors or negotiating low rental fees. We got many great locations this way. And then there was the Greek Cultural Centre that was very supportive of the film, allowing us to use their space as a studio were we shot a thrift shop scene, a hospital scene, a theater scene and also set up a greenscreen.

The largest part of our budget (next to union actor’s fees) was production insurance. Shooting guerilla style is all well and good, but it can be risky or dangerous. We were planning on shooting near fast moving traffic, on bridges, and late at night in deserted Brooklyn neighborhoods. The last thing I wanted was someone to get hurt and be left without medical assistance. So insurance was a must. And you need this in order to get a permit from the Mayor’s Office to lay down a tripod or a dolly.

I had set a date to start shooting in October – November 2006 and catch some of that beautiful NYC fall light. But pre-production was going slowly. As the pages of prop and locations lists multiplied, I realized that this was a very ambitious script… But we pressed on. The shoot date got pushed back to November – December (a total of 5 weeks). And pre-production would have to be done simultaneously as production, because I had no desire to shoot in a snow capped New York in January. The pressure was on.

We were far from ready. But production had to start, so it did. And I will leave the production phase for the next entry…