Part 1 – Pre-Production and Production: From Tradition to Experiment
As the writer/director of SILVERFISH, I struck out to make my first feature in as traditional a way as one can when working with a rigid budget, that is, no budget. And though my independent spirit may absorb a jolt by other experimental film enthusiasts, I must admit that I am as much a follower of screen-writing guru, Robert McKee, as I have been of writers like Robert Hardy and others who have been gracious enough to share their independent filmmaking experiences and knowledge with folks like me who did not attend film school. I offer this disclaimer because it is relevant to the evolution of SILVERFISH as it has shifted over the course of its six-year lifespan from what I viewed to be a traditional drama during pre-production to an experimental arthouse film in post-production.
When the concept for SILVERFISH was spawned, I set about writing with Robert McKee’s story formula at the forefront of my work. I literally typed an outline that I stole from his book, Story, and I started plugging my ideas into the model. Jump cut from 2011 to 2014, and I had a script (yes, it took me that long), one that followed a three-act structure and contained merging storylines, multi-dimensional characters, and a universal theme. The ball was rolling, and I moved right into casting. Of course, due to lack of money, casting was non-traditional by Hollywood standards, but in the independent world of filmmaking in Austin, Texas, I was not doing anything revolutionary. I sent the script to people I knew and with whom I had worked and basically got lucky. Every actor I wanted aboard came aboard.
I knew all along that I would not be able to pay the artists in more than booze and food for their work. However, because I have spent the greater part of my fourteen-year journey in film as an actor (on both paid and non-paid projects), I wanted to find a creative incentive that would lock the cast and crew into SILVERFISH as though it were their own passion project. Without realizing it, the film began to take its first major experimental turn. After casting was complete, I made what could be considered a risky decision. During our first full-scale pre-production meeting, I relayed to the entire cast that I would be turning their characters over to them during the production phase. I let them know that I wanted the performances to feel as authentic as possible and that I would not be directing their character work unless they needed an explanation about something specific that needed to be seen.
Beyond making sure that we shot clean and usable takes, I did very little actual directing. Before shooting any scene, we discussed and questioned what we found to be important or relevant to the scene or story. Apart from our pre-scene chats, however, the actors had complete control over how they brought the scripted characters to life in front of the camera. They were free to choose wardrobe, tweak character motives, mannerisms, and behaviors, and even change and improvise the dialogue as they saw fit. For me, this became a crucial and helpful decision because I had also cast myself in a leading role and was trying to remain attentive to my own character choices. In hindsight, experimenting with a minimalist style of direction gave the scenes and the actors room to breathe new life into the story. The performances were unique, and much to my satisfaction, broke the feeling that every line had been written by me alone.
As shooting got into a groove, the shoot began to feel as though we were all building the film together. As an aside, we did not allow the freestyle to break or change plot points and scene objectives. As a point of fact, the actors often chose to stick with the dialogue as it had been written. I found as we continued shooting that anytime the written dialogue was weak or unbelievable, the actors began easily sliding into an improvisational rhythm, freely employing lines that worked for them and improvising those that did not. I am proud to say that the backbone of our film is rooted in the viscerally authentic performances.
Check back in for Part 2 where I will dive into my experience of sifting through over 20 hours of footage to extract a 96-minute story.