This week’s interview is with writer/director Matthew T. Price and writer/producer Kelly Morr. Matt and Kelly co-wrote OTHER HALVES, an indie horror movie set in the world of a Bay Area tech startup. The team gives some killer insight into the realm of indie production, financing and distribution. Check it out as they share the process of writing and making OTHER HALVES, streaming now on Amazon and Google Play!
OTHER HALVES: “A team of programmers develop a revolutionary new dating app called Other Halves. On the night before the app is set to launch, they discover it causes strange side effects: users lose all self-control, becoming amoral, lascivious, violent… evil. They consider shutting the app down, but… Evil is profitable.”
Let’s dive in:
How did you come up with the premise?
MATT: Initially, it came from a very practical place. I wanted to make a movie, and I was looking at opportunities for things that made sense.
Some friends of mine own a startup in San Francisco, and I had shot a YouTube commercial for them. While I was there, I was like, “Wow, this place is really cool. Do you think I could shoot something here?” And they were like, “Oh yeah sure.” We were friends back in college, so I think they were imagining the kind of student films we used to make. I don’t think they were imagining a full feature film.
So, I had written a draft based around the fact that I had this great location. And, I had an idea. I had pieces. Because we were shooting in San Francisco and Kelly lived up there, I called her up and said, “Hey do you want to be involved in a producorial aspect because you know people up there? You know the area better than I do.” She said sure, and she wanted to know what the script looked like. I showed her the script. She sent me some notes, and then she sent me some more notes, and then she sent me some more notes. Eventually I was like, “Do you want to write this together?”
To take it back, we were in a writers’ group years and years ago. That’s how we knew each other. So I knew Kelly was a good writer, and I liked her as a writer. But I knew she also had her own day job, so I wasn’t necessarily thinking I wanted to volunteer her to write it. But, she had so many great ideas, and she was so interested. Plus, she knows a lot of startup type people, and she had a lot of insight into that as well, so it made sense.
The script that we ended up writing together has a superficial relationship to the original draft that I wrote. But essentially, we started over when she came on.
KELLY: I think that hit every point I would have said, so I’ll let him stand on that one.
So is this the first feature that you guys have done?
KELLY: Yes. I think both of us have worked on other people’s feature films, but this is definitely the first one that we have written and produced together. Matt mentioned the writing group that we were a part of, it was a screenwriters’ group, so both of us have written scripts that have been put out there, but this was the first one that is a full-length feature production that lives and exists in the world.
You both saw the project through from pre-production to post. What was the process like?
MATT: The structure of my friend’s startup company was that they had a very rigid schedule. The times that we could shoot were very specific. We could shoot for one week, but only every seven weeks. Initially, we had a start date that we wanted to shoot, so we only had, how much time it was to write the first draft?
KELLY: We tentatively were going to shoot in October, and we started writing in August, then realized it was unfeasible. But we had a draft done by then.
MATT: Because of that October date, we had started casting. We didn’t tell the actors, but the script wasn’t done. We knew who the characters were. The first scenes we wrote were the sides that we sent to the actors. So the first draft was done kind of around the time we settled on the cast. Then we sent it to the cast. Once we moved the date, we did several table reads. With every table read, we would rewrite the script.
We shot the last week of January 2015. I don’t think we locked the script until the first week of January. We were continually changing it because of the actors. For instance, one of the actors was German. She didn’t audition with a German accent. In her audition, she sounded American because she was playing an American character. When we met her for callbacks, I realized she had something of an accent. So Kelly and I talked and we were like, wouldn’t it be cool if one of the characters was German? So we changed her character because of that actor.
It was always changing up until shooting. We didn’t write anything on set. Did we?
KELLY: We had to write lines here and there, like for Lianna’s final scene to give her options. Not a ton. We were so engaged in the production process, Matt directing and me producing – just the intricacies of that. And when you’re on a 10-day shoot schedule, you’re pretty tied up in doing other daily things.
MATT: I was pretty proud once we settled on the script. Like Kelly said, other than a couple of things here and there, we were pretty firm. In order to shoot it in 10 days, I had to shot list every scene. The costumer had to have everything set. The DP had to figure out what days were good days and what days were not. We didn’t make big decisions while shooting, we made them beforehand. So the shoot went remarkably smoothly because once we said we were done, we were done.
I’ve worked on a lot of movies and TV shows where people don’t do that, and then you end up shooting a lot of stuff that doesn’t end up in the movie. You end up wasting a lot of time while the bigwigs are in the corner making decisions, and everyone else is standing around looking at their watches. I always hated that kind of thing. I was really glad we didn’t do that.
How did you raise funding for the movie and come up with your budget?
KELLY: We have a third partner, producer Curt Chatham. He came on with experience as a unit production manager previously. He had a lot of experience in line item budgeting, so we would run the script by him and have him take a look and break it down for us.
We knew we were going to shoot super micro-budget. It was under $50,000. Basically, we went out, and we raised money. We started with people we knew and used contacts to try to find investors.
In the grand scheme of things, to me $50,000 is a lot of money, but in the grand scheme of filmmaking that’s not that much money. A majority of our budget was covered by three or four investors. Does that sound right?
MATT: The people who paid in large chunks were a couple of partners, a guy by himself, and then a third guy who didn’t have a ton of film finance experience but had a lot of financial experience generally.
KELLY: It probably made up about 80% of our budget. The last little bits came in through other means. I put in a little bit. Curt put in a little bit, too. We also had a couple friends and family members who put in a little bit.
After we were done shooting, we realized we needed a little bit of money for things that we had underestimated in terms of post-production. We ended up doing an Indiegogo campaign at that point. We ended up raising about $3000-$4000 dollars to help us with finishing costs.
MATT: I think that was the one area we thought we had planned for, but we hadn’t. It was actually for the visual effects. There weren’t a lot of visual effects, but we had characters sitting at computer screens because they were programmers, so there were a lot of computer screens that were just green. Our editor, Don Stroud, who was doing the screen replacements, he thought he was going to be able to do it. And he did a lot of it. But eventually, he wasn’t going to be able to finish it in any reasonable amount of time. So, we had to hire some outside people. He became the visual effects supervisor.
That’s the one thing where our planning was not as good as the rest. Everything else happened the way that we expected.
How did the fact that you based your script in the tech world play into your writing and shot choices? Because thinking about a computer world, it’s hard to make that visually interesting and yet you were able to pull it off extremely well.
KELLY: We knew what the set was going into it. We did a lot of location scouting. And we also were lucky to work with an incredibly talented young cinematographer, Tobias Deml. I used to work at UC Berkeley, and he was actually my student when I was at UC Berkeley. He showed me his reel at some point and I was like, “You’re really good!” Now, he’s had films in South by Southwest, and he’s getting all this work, and he’s doing great.
He and I went location scouting, so we were kind of able to do interesting stuff with that. Matt was really familiar with the location as well. We had a really specific aesthetic we were going for, and then it was just finding clever ways to play with that. There are certainly a couple of scenes where that got tricky – where it’s basically the group sitting in one space. And I know Matt tried to keep those shots interesting. Also, just mixing it up as much as possible within the location there.
Some of the stuff was very straightforward. We had a great production designer, Amanda Driggs. We also had written in a couple very visual scenes. And when we were able to get into the space and let our production designer go a little bit crazy, they became more amazing than I could ever imagine. They have a whole scene we wrote, which we refer to as our dioramas of death, which very much is… you go from window to window seeing different dead bodies and they are in this terrible, horrible, artistic set-up. So that in and of itself is always going to have a certain visual “spice” to it, for lack of a better word. Then when we turned it over and got a bunch of creative people involved it added a layer to it.
What did you guys do as far as equipment? How did you budget that?
MATT: For that size budget, anyone who had a camera brought one. I had a Blackmagic HD camera. There’s a company called Blackmagic Cinema that produces really cheap but really high quality HD cameras. That year they sold what they call the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema, which looks about the size of a point and shoot camera, but it shoots HD. It can fit in your hand. The year that we filmed the movie, they put it on sale for $500 dollars, which is a lot of money, but for a camera of its quality is very little. So I had one. Tobias, the DP, had one. Two other people did too.
This is where I think my experience working in television for so long paid off. I’ve worked on different television shows for 7 years. In feature films, you’ll shoot 3 pages and call it a day; we’ll do that before lunch on a television show. So, I had spent years watching these directors, producers, and ADs working together to shoot 8 or 9 pages a day.
For OTHER HALVES, I planned out all of the dialogue shots. We rehearsed every dialogue scene with the entire cast. So basically, I pushed all the furniture in my apartment to the walls, and I said okay here’s your desk, here’s your desk, and here’s your desk. And as we walked through the scene, I’d be like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you rolled over here in your chair while you were talking.” And we worked all that out.
KELLY: So, we rehearsed it theatrically.
MATT: Like we were doing it a play. In order to get a wide shot of everybody and a close up of whatever with three cameras looking in one direction, then this direction and this direction – for every dialogue scene, we only did 4 setups but because we had three cameras, that’s 12 shots.
Also, there would be shots where it’s a close-up, let’s say of Beth, she’s sitting on the couch, but then she gets up and leaves the couch, and Sean comes and sits down. I’ve got both of their close-ups, but it’s one camera set up. And the audience, because those shots are a minute or two apart, doesn’t remember it’s the exact same shot. It doesn’t look like we’re repeating shots, even though we are. There were a lot of those tricks, and there was a lot of planning.
And like Kelly said. We rehearsed it over and over again like a play. We told them when we were shooting, “You’re not going to know when it’s your close-up or not. We just sort of have to go full speed.” So everyone did it like a play. I said action. Generally speaking, they didn’t know if the camera was on them or on the person next to them. We did it two or three times, and I’d say great, let’s change angles. Then we’d do that 2-3 times.
There was one day we shot 15 pages, which is a large number, so that on another day we could do 4 pages. Like Kelly was talking about, for the dioramas of death there was a lot of makeup and lighting stuff going on. We basically had to balance those things out. But it all came down to timing it out in advance, starting with the script.
How long did post take?
KELLY: Much longer. We shot at the end of January. We played in a festival in October or November.
When did you decide to seek distribution?
KELLY: We knew right away. We explicitly chose to make a genre film. Our goal was to make our money back and hopefully we can do that. It’s a fairly limited budget that we had. We weren’t just seeking financing so that we could make a movie and throw it away frivolously.
Distribution has been our end goal going forward. We’ve been fairly realistic about it, realizing with the budget that we had that we aren’t going to get some sort of crazy pick up and end up in 300 theaters across the country.
Every time you do something like this, you learn more about it. And I think that was one of the things we thought was somehow going to be easier than it was because we’ve been working on that for a little less than a year, in terms of trying to find distribution and figure out the best way to make it happen. That was always our end goal.
What platforms have you negotiated for distribution? How does the process work?
KELLY: It’ll be on Amazon and Google Play to start and iTunes in late 2016. Their process is longer.
MATT: It’ll also be on Vudu, Vimeo and YouTube.
Your goal is to get on as many platforms as possible. They take 50% of the purchase price, so you’re lucky to get a dollar every time someone watches the movie.
KELLY: What we ended up doing is more of a DIY marketing job than we intended it to be. I feel okay about where things are. I work at a tech startup in marketing, so I’ve been able to tap into the knowledge of some of my colleagues around how to best set things up for tracking. We have some really interesting ideas on how to do paid advertisements in unusual spaces and social media marketing, along with the traditional non-paid ways of using social media and search engine optimization to get to the right people. If there were areas I’ve learned the most about in this process, marketing a film would be one of the top things on that list.
MATT: One thing that Kelly has explained to me that I didn’t understand – I made the movie for horror fans. Kelly explained, in terms of social marketing, we need to narrow it down as much as possible, so you can target it.
We’re looking for women who are interested in technology as well as horror movies. That’s our target audience. So, we can look for more than horror fans because that’s a large audience – therefore a smaller percentage would be interested in our movie. But if we look for women who live in San Francisco and also have a dating profile, then suddenly we’re something they might find interesting.
Also, other avenues, like we’re looking at advertising on actual dating sites, because our movie is about a dating app. So we can tie in things and find people who are already thinking about that kind of thing. It’s a specific marketing rather than a trailer and a poster.
What kind of advice do you have for aspiring writers and filmmakers who want to do what you’re doing?
MATT: My thing is always that you should not start at the top. There’s an old joke: the only two entry level jobs on a set are a PA and a director. I think it’s a terrible idea to come out of film school and never have worked on a set before and start directing a movie. I think it’s a terrible idea to sell a script and walk on set and everyone is doing all this stuff and you can’t tell a grip from an electrician. You should work on set.
The only way I was able to shoot 9 pages a day was because I had paid attention to over 100 episodes of television –how they were shot, and how they were shot quickly yet still looked good. If you don’t at least have a few jobs under your belt as a PA or as a camera assistant or something… you could be a one in a million genius like Steven Spielberg, who just walked onto a set, and know what you’re doing, but you’re probably not. You really ought to start at the bottom. Even if you’ve worked on a bunch of short films, it’s not the same thing. You need to work on a real professional set.
KELLY: There are a couple things. Number one, the cliché, make things and write things because you’re going to learn a lot by doing that. I mean, both Matt and I are in our early to mid-30s and have been in some aspect of creative careers, filmmaking careers, writing careers, since we graduated from college. We weren’t just two 22-year-olds who threw this together. We have a lot of various experience under our belts to get there.
My advice would be to get to know diverse people, who do creative things, to always build up those collaborations. What really made this successful was the way we were able to pull on our different networks to pull it together. It wasn’t just, “These are my five friends from college who were also in filmmaking classes with me and none of us know what we’re doing.”
Matt’s worked a ton on TV sets. I haven’t. I don’t know that. However, I worked at Berkeley, and I had a lot of connections to the film network there. I also had been a boss. I’ve been in charge of 10-20 people before. I knew the people management side of things, and here’s what we need to do to keep people happy and working on it. We’ve met people through this project or even prior to it. I mentioned we found our DP because he was a former student of mine. So, it’s just like finding these different people you can connect with. We’ve also built collaborations from this as well.
One of our actors, Carson, he’s also into photography and shooting, so we’ve talked about doing other projects with him. You find people and their skill sets, then you leverage that to do projects. Know that you can’t do everything yourself. Figure out what it is that you’re good at and then find other people who are good at other things.
I think that’s even true for the writing partnership Matt and I have. We sort of balance each other out sometimes in terms of what each of us is good at and make sure we keep the other realistic and in check and all that stuff.
MATT: Also, we sort of touched on it, when you’re writing a lot of people will give you the advice, “Write whatever, don’t worry about the budget and schedule. Use your imagination.” That’s a terrible idea if you actually plan on making it yourself.
From the beginning, I had this big notion that I wanted to do a Jekyll and Hyde kind of story. That was the original idea, but we had a startup, so we said okay, we’re not going to inject ourselves with chemicals, it’ll be something that involves technology. We went through 8 different ideas of what the app would be before we settled on a dating app. But, it was based on a nice location, it looked cool, and we could get it for free. That was a very practical thing.
As we were writing, we knew if we killed a guy on page 19, we wouldn’t have to pay the actor for the rest of the movie. There’s a value in thinking about how many scenes a character is in. We had written at least one three-line character that was killed off camera, so we just removed her because that’s somebody that we’d have to cast, we’d have to pay, we’d have to get a costume for, and all of that stuff. And it didn’t really add anything; it was one more body in a horror movie, which probably saved 200-300 dollars. On a 50,000 budget, that is big chunk of money.
You shouldn’t limit yourself completely, and you should be open to ideas. But, you should constantly think like, “Am I going to be able to rent a bomber factory to film a scene in?” Probably not unless your dad is a guy who owns Boeing, then use that. My friends own a startup, so I used that. Who do you know? What do you have? What can you actually do?
KELLY: Restrictions made us more creative. We were like, this is what we have to work with, now I have to find a creative solution. It made us sit down and think through some problems that you can’t just write another character to come in and say a line, you have to solve this problem with the toolset that you have. I think that can actually be good.
Matt was touching on, but I think I can clearly say, and this was where it was helpful that Curt had the production management experience, locations are often one of the biggest parts of your budget.
So if someone is looking to do this themselves, sit down and understand the financial side of it. This is something I think Matt and I got a crash course on while we were doing this. Figure out what those are and how can you work within that. We saved money by getting locations for free or cheap. We shot on Blackmagic cameras but we rented a couple of better lenses and we worked with a DP to get the most out of those cameras.
Figure out what those things are and go from there.