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INTERVIEW: Todd Sklar – Writer/Director

Todd Sklar, writer and director of “Box Elder” has just wrapped the first leg of his nationwide tour for the film.  The tag line for his movie “Box Elder” seems to sum up what it’s all about best – “On the the road to nowhere, these guys call shotgun.”  Todd took time out from scheduling the next leg of the tour to talk about directing, the tour and of course – sound.

Todd Sklar (left) and Brock Williams (right)WOODY: Many first time directors are more attuned to the visuals and the technical aspects regarding the picture than the audio and the recording process on set. Did you find that to be true for yourself?

TODD: I would say that for me story and performance always come first, but visually, as the technical aspect of the film, I understood that better. In a weird way sound is something that I am very acutely aware of when I am watching films but I have no practical production experience with it what so ever. It was more so the lack of know-how in the translation from point A to point B. I love overlapping dialogue and I really wanted that. I would always source Mash, you know how great that is.

WOODY: Altman was a master in his use of sound and production dialog.

TODD: Exactly, exactly. But I did not understand necessarily how much effort and work he put into that you know? They don’t have audio commentary tracks on DVD’s with sound guys talking about how you approach sound. The first time I watched Boogie Nights P.T. Anderson was talking about how they got that first tracking shot and so I can understand how to do that and plan how to do that. A lot of it was just not having the experience to understand how difficult of a thing production audio is. And the weird thing is, going into making the film I had so much research that I was doing and everybody, any idiot who’s made a film in the world would warn you and tell you how important sound is, and I was well aware of that. But you really don’t understand how it’s your number one priority if you do not know what you are doing. You should be listening to the sound guy and telling everyone else to shut up. That’s a learning lesson without question.

WOODY: And have you made other pictures as well?

TODD: I have made some shorts, but I would not really even consider them shorts. I would call them “film experiences” because they are all so flawed in their own little way. I have no background in film and didn’t go to film school. The only reason I made shorts was to get that hands-on experience and to learn story telling through the lens in a hands-on approach. Every one of the shorts I made was way overtly ambitious in every aspect of the medium, the story telling and everything. That way I could try to stretch myself and figure out how to do certain things. So they are all very much flawed and hard to watch.

WOODY: So that was inspiration to go ahead and tackle a feature-length project?

TODD: (Laughs) Yeah. It’s interesting because my technical prowess didn’t actually grow that much. I think my ability for story telling has always in its strongest form been natural instincts and intuition and what not. The thing that kind of progressed me into doing a feature is just the last short I made before this feature was around twenty-eight minutes long and that was heavily condensed with a lot of scenes. It was really too heavy and that was in its shortest form. I just could not fit all the things I wanted to do in a story in less than ninety minutes. So for me, I didn’t set out to necessarily write a feature, but I think the first treatment was twelve pages longer than my first draft of the script, which was like 160 pages. (Laughs) Either it’s going to be a TV show or it’s going to be feature.

WOODY: So you out grew doing shorts?

TODD: Pretty much. And only in the story telling aspect. At that point I did not even feel comfortable making another short as far as my technical skills go. I had to pick that up at a much more relevant pace to match the story telling.

WOODY: So in terms of actual time from when you finished the script to actually wrapping was what, 9 months or a year?

TODD: Yeah, a little bit less than that.

WOODY: And how about the post process? How long did it take you to get from wrapping production to a locked picture edit?

TODD: That was a crazy experience as well. (Laughs) Our editor Kamau [Bilal] was editing overnight the rough cuts of each scene that we shot during the shooting. So we had our first actual rough cut of the film I want to say less than five or six days after we wrapped. So that helped a lot. That really expedited the initial post process. Then from there me and Kamau worked together every day for a little less than 2 months. We did one day of re-shoots and then just edited around 18 to 20 hours a day between me and him. And I want to say we wrapped around mid September and had picture lock in the beginning of February so that would be about five months.

WOODY: In terms picture cutting, did you think that was about right?

TODD: I thought it was unbelievably fast. Our ethos during the whole process was that we were going to make the best movie possible and we’re not going to have any deadlines, festival or other. I worked at Sundance that year, so I was gone for a month doing that and then we did an initial round of ADR that took two weeks, so we had about a month and a half of that five months where we weren’t cutting at all. So technically it was really more like 3 1/2 months. And I thought for that, that’s just incredibly fast for a movie that going into it with as much improvisation as we did and also leaving ourselves as much exploration room as I needed to figure things out. I thought 3 1/2 months is pretty incredible to burn through and find the story that we did. That said though, keep in mind that Kamau and I were literally editing 18 to 20 hours every day during that period. So as far as actual hours go, it’s probably not too quick compared to a regular production, but as far as actual days go I thought it went pretty quickly.

WOODY: What format did you shoot?

TODD: We shot in HD. We used the Panasonic HVX and it is 720p and stereo sound and we used the 35mm adapter and shot most of the film with either the 35mm lens or a 50mm lens. Some of our close ups, especially the outdoor stuff, we used an 80 to kind of get the faces to pop out a little more. But a lot of that with the lenses works out because of the campus. (University of Missouri, the setting for “Box Elder”) My DP and I worked together a lot in preproduction talking about different styles and the kind of things I was interested in and the films that influenced me in general. He did a great job of understanding what about those films I liked and then we were intuitively able to create similar things. So in a weird way there is not a lot of rip off shots if you will. They’re very kind of (Jim Jarmusch) Jarmusian and Wes Anderson like with the relation between characters and space and settings. I think it helps tell the story because the whole idea was keeping the campus as a character in a way.

WOODY: How did you do your production audio?

TODD: That’s a really good question. We had the wonderful Jesse “C-Nug” Brown who was mixing and doing boom at the same time.

Jesse \

WOODY: Wow, that’s always a challenge.

TODD: (Laughs) It really is. This was his first feature as well and so it was a nightmare for him but he was a trooper and he did an unbelievable job. Primarily we used a Sennheiser Shotgun and some wireless lavs as well. For a little while we were using plate mics just to get production audio around the set, but mostly we just shot with a shotgun, a boom, and tried to keep the sound as natural as possible. Our production audio was easily the weakest element going into post and that was primarily because of my inexperience, again technical inexperience. And for C-Nug this is his first feature and his first time working with any of us, so he didn’t know anybody on set. It was very hard for him to kind of step up and say “hey guys I think you need to do this” or “I think we need to do that.” He did try to do this and unfortunately we didn’t listen as much as we should have. Thank God he was a trooper about that because a lot of people know they’re right and they should if they know their job, and you’re telling them to shut up or don’t worry about it. They will just storm off or get grumpy or say “I do not want to work with these people.” C-Nug was just like you know “it’s cool, let’s do it your way, we will worry about it later.”  And he never once in post when we had sound issues was like, “I told you so.” You never heard him say that one time. It was always “what can I do to help.” So we got really, really lucky to have a personality like that on set even though we kind of did not utilize him as skillfully as we should have.

WOODY: Prior to “Box Elder” had you had any post audio experience?

TODD: No I didn’t. Most of the time whoever is [picture] editing for me would do all of that for me. It’s a very interesting thing – I’ll say three of my four shorts the DP ended up doing the editing and did a lot of the sound design and the other one the editor did a lot of the sound design and sound effects and cleaned it up. I never recognized this until looking back, but in almost everyone of those processes I was in the editing room you know like twenty-four hours a day being a partner in every decision until “now I’ll just clean up the sound and we will look at again it tomorrow.”  And I can’t believe that I never once considered what “cleaning up the sound” was. It’s pretty amazing especially knowing that I would break and I would go and stay up for twelve hours and think about a new scene to shoot and the editor would stay up for twelve hours “cleaning up the sound” but I never connected on how intensively he was working on that. So my lack of experience in post sound definitely crippled the film a little bit.

WOODY: So when you began to focus in more on just the audio were you horrified, did it open more doors for you or did you see it as a chance to change the pacing or to help scenes in a way that you hadn’t prior?

TODD: That’s very interesting. In every other facet of the post-production phase I did a good job in making sure to stay creatively thinking “how can we make the film better.” How can we take this and creatively either fix it and find a creative solution or use it to our advantage and to the film’s advantage. But at that point with the audio we had tried so many things and failed so many times that I had become more lenient there than ever before. It’s either – we are going to try and fix this and get it the way I want it or we are just going to bite the bullet and do what we have to do. And that was my attitude going in. But then after working on it and focusing on it and realizing the possibilities that were still there even though we were in a time crunch, it opened up to me – we are still creating a film here! What I really look forward to on the next one is doing the post edit for the sound as a whole new other edit again. For first time filmmakers, especially in a time crunch and budget crunch, it’s a tough thing to remember that you’re not just fixing the mistakes, you’re supposed to be creative. I looked at it more as a “mistake fixing” scenario than a creative one.

WOODY: Kurosawa said something like, “Cinematic sound does not merely add to, but multiplies two or three times, the effect of the image.”

TODD: That is great. That is really good. I’m probably going to steal that.

WOODY: If you were advising other first time feature directors, do you have any advice either about the production audio or the post audio process?

TODD: For post audio I would say take half of your post budget and dedicate it to post audio. And that’s a minimum. And I would also say take half of the time you’ve allotted for post and dedicate that to post audio.

WOODY: You know a lot of people will think you’re crazy for saying that. (Both laugh)

TODD: Here’s the thing. We had a production with “Box Elder” that was the epitome of “we have one less day” or “one less thing” than we need. And that said, throughout the whole process, from every aspect, from money to time to resources, everything, the only thing that we actually ran short on was time and money for post audio. We got away with everything else. Everything else we found a creative solution to make to make it work, make it fit. I would much rather error on the side of having too much time and too much money for post audio verses the other. I don’t think you would waddle around if you had extra time. You are already so close to the finish line. And my advice regarding the production audio is, and this is so repetitive because everyone will tell you this, but it’s the most important thing in the world. I was very well liked by my actors and my crew was very supportive but the biggest aspect of my production for me was to protect the actors, to make sure they had an atmosphere and an energy where they could create and people weren’t inhibiting that or offending them or making them feel uncomfortable or make them feel like they had to perform. And a lot of that was because of the natural energy and the creative energy and what not. But I think that the sound person, whoever is doing production sound should be defended and respected by the director in the exact same regard. Especially because it is so often that the sound person is looked at as the evil guy on set because “oh no, we didn’t get it because of this or that” or “I’m not quite ready yet because I’ve been waiting on you guys and now I have to start doing my job.” It’s definitely a job that everybody on set doesn’t really take into consideration and it’s so important. So one thing I will be doing next time out is being as conscious of my production sound person as I am with my actors and just as protective. You know C-Nug was amazing – being on set in his first feature, he doesn’t know anybody there, and it compromises that situation and makes it so much more pressure filled. I really feel like it is the filmmaker’s obligation, it was my obligation to say “Are we okay? Is the refrigerator on?” Because that way if he says “no, we need fifteen minutes” I’m on the hook. I’m the guy who makes that decision and says “you know what guys, I know we want to shoot this, we want to make the day but we need to wait fifteen minutes to get the sound in.” He’s not being the bad guy, I am. I think that is part of what being a filmmaker is all about, being the bad guy, making sure that you are the one making those decisions. Because everyone who is there, they showed up to make your film. They don’t care if they have to wait fifteen minutes – they came that day to do what you needed them to do. They didn’t come that day to do what C-Nug needed them to do. That’s not his responsibility, its mine. So I think the biggest thing for any future filmmaker is to make sure you are responsible for your sound person. That is totally your responsibility. And that was like the biggest thing that I learned- because I did not recognize that at all I didn’t defend him at all and that should have been an absolute priority. It’s incredible to think that like I was so protective of these actors because it was their first time, I never once considered to think about that for the sound person. Yeah man what a trooper, what a guy.

WOODY: So now you’ve packed up your film and you’ve taken your show on the road. You are driving around the country, bringing your film to the masses. How did the actual tour concept come about?

TODD: I originally came up with the concept before I was actually writing the script, or it was right around that period of time. It was primarily based around my experience that I had with booking bands and concerts in Columbia, the college town I went to for school. I had a lot of success with graduate marketing and e-marketing and event planning and event coordination and event booking. I didn’t have any background in that so I was using a lot of hustling, just kind of intuitive skills to make that happen. I felt like if I could do that with bands in a small college town then I could probably do it with movies. Not too different of a business. And when I started to explore that, the difference between the two of them I found was that it really wasn’t that different of a business model. It was just that the movie industry on the distribution side of things is a lot more of a mess than the concert industry. So in actuality the situation is more stacked in my advantage to book a film in a town and make it an event than it is with a concert, which is really eerie to think about because it is such a different trade off on the financial side of things. But based on that I had a pretty large social network in different college towns and I did a lot of road trips, so I knew the country fairly well and felt that I had the right guys in place to come along with me to make it all happen, so it was kind of fundamentally based on that. And also at the South by Southwest festival there was a panel that Richard Linklater was on. It was right after he had sold “Fast Food Nation”, and they were asking him the things he was shocked by as far as new trends in filmmaking were concerned. The questions were geared towards digital cinema and how did he think technology has affected cinema. He said how he was shocked by how technology wasn’t changing cinema. He was blown away that when he sold “Slacker” at Sundance in ’91, I think it was, the same person who had sales rep’d for him then was his sales rep when he sold “Fast Food Nation.” He was just blown away that every other aspect of the industry had changed ten times over in the last sixteen some odd years but not with the infrastructure – those same people were still doing the same jobs. There just had been no change what so ever. And that to me was like, if this guy thinks that there is a problem then I am not crazy and maybe, just maybe, we have not a solution but the beginning of something. So that was just a real source of inspiration.

WOODY: And how has the tour experience been?

TODD: The tour went pretty well man, it was pretty crazy. It was a good venture. We ended up showing the film in a little over thirty-three theaters, which is a good amount for any independent film and ended up selling about nine thousand six hundred tickets or a little more than that. So, yeah, we did well with that. With that said, the whole idea of the first tour was to kind of make it a beta stage for the distribution model itself. We took a lot of risks and tried every trick in the book at cost effectiveness. We ended up spending more money than we should have, but through trial and error we made a little bit of money. We need to make a lot more, but it was good. It was defiantly an incredible thing. It was amazing to see, you know, a couple of hundred or so odd people in the theater every night watching your movie. The great thing is getting to know your fans. These people become zealots because it’s your audience and you’re doing a very direct marketing, doing a niche-oriented first hand, person-to-person target marketing. You’re picking up people who you think and kind of know are going to love the film and getting them in there and knowing that they’re going to love it is a very inspiring thing.

WOODY: So how many times did you end up watching the movie?

TODD: You know its funny. I watched it all the way through at start for I don’t know, I didn’t get sick of it until maybe half way through the tour, then I would kind of watch it in parts. Then it got so busy towards the middle of the tour that during the screenings I would be working outside the theater still trying to set things up for the rest of the tour, so I ended up not watching it for about a month and a half. Then I kind of missed it. So the last few weeks I started watching it again, which is kind of nice.

WOODY: Sometimes when I re-watch a picture I spent a lot of time with after a break I often find that I take something new and different away from it.

TODD: Totally, see that’s the best part. That was the first experience for that with me finally with the film, to see it with new eyes for the first time at the end of the tour, which is really nice.

WOODY: Many filmmakers make their project and just shop and shop and shop it hoping a sales rep or distributor will pick it up. I really admire your proactive approach to getting your picture out to audiences.

TODD: I think a lot of filmmakers and not just filmmakers there are a lot of people in the industry in general, I think it might be more of a producer/investor thing than a filmmaker thing, and they don’t make content for themselves and they definitely don’t make content to story-tell. They don’t make the content to show it to people, they make the content to either make a profit or build or progress a career in some way shape or form. So then the idea of making a film, then the plan is to sell it and the investors will make money and the producer will have a blue star on their resume and the filmmaker will get to make another film and everyone is happy. That’s the goal. Where as with us, I already had an investor group interested in making my next film before I had even started shooting this one. There was no pressure what so ever to try and get my next film made. I had no interest in progressing a career and neither did Brock [Williams - Producer of Box Elder]. We just wanted to make a film so that we could show it to people. I think that’s the other thing that didn’t necessarily play into the actual distribution model but the thing that kept it alive the whole time from like November 2005 or whatever to actually touring it, the fact that no one got in the way of saying, you know, maybe we shouldn’t tour. It’s just that we all wanted to make this film to show it.

WOODY: So what’s on tap for the next Todd Sklar project?

TODD: (Laughs) Well we are touring again in the fall. We’re going to the west coast then we are touring in the east coast and we are going to make a documentary while on tour this time. That’s going on and then summer of next year the plan is to make another film. I have a script that I wrote before “Box Elder” that’d kind of a little bigger in scale that I want to make going across the U.S. and kind of like a little road movie and hopefully a with a lot of the same people.

WOODY: Can’t wait to see it.