Fireflies and Failureboys
Digital filmmaking has provided independent filmmakers with the tools to produce watchable films, but then there's the matter of enticing people to actually watch them. An interview with indie filmmaker, Peter Marcy.
One of the most interesting films making the rounds on the international film festival circuit is Peter Marcy’s Firefly. An enigmatic and hypnotic tale of four people who find their lives intertwined by a mysterious incident on Halloween night, Firefly displays a genuine command of cinematic craft which often eludes even the most seasoned filmmakers.
It is a low-key film driven by storytelling, through the withholding and releasing of information at exactly the right moments. Its structure is mysterious at first as the film leisurely crosscuts the daily lives of four separate characters, all of whom seem headed for some kind of mystical epiphany on Christmas Eve.
Susan (Lindsay Hinman) believes she was raped on Halloween night and is frustrated in her attempts to get anyone to believe her. Brandt (Pete Marcy) suspects that his girlfriend Rachel (Sara Persons) is cheating on him, and goes to desperate measures to find out. Del (Chris Marcy) is a roofer and amateur filmmaker who makes schlocky sci-fi films with his ever reluctant friends. The fourth character is the most mysterious of all: Arnie (Devon Jorlett), a bald young man who seems committed to using his powers of clairvoyance to save lives.
All four stories come together brilliantly in the last 10 minutes to reveal the meaning behind the intricate pattern of clues strewn throughout the film. From Susan’s obsessive morning jogs to Arnie’s violent coughing, random details suddenly reveal to be part of a masterful narrative plan that’s executed with great confidence and skill.
Shot in Marcy’s hometown of Minnesota for the low budget of $5,000, Firefly is a testament to creativity, ingenuity, and plain hard work. That’s something that’s not often spoken of when independent films are discussed. Without the large crew and other resources that can be provided with Hollywood backing, filmmakers are forced to do much, if not all of the work -- raising funds, directing, editing, PR, administrative work, etc.. There’s a kind of DIY street cred that comes as a fringe benefit from such work, but the real benefit is the freedom to create as artists are meant to, freely and without compromise or consultation from a committee. The drawback, of course, is the dearth of financial resources.
Financial pressures often force filmmakers to work 9 to 5 jobs and shoot on weekends, sometimes over years in order to shoot all the scenes required to tell a feature length story. Commitments from actors and friends may dwindle after long days of volunteering, and hairstyles may begin to defy any attempt at continuity. When the shooting is done, hours and hours in front of the computer are ahead, laying in each of those pieces, each carefully designed sound effect or music track to a film that may never see the light of day let alone the silver screen.
A strong sense of self-confidence, powered by a willing self-delusion, is an absolute requirement for the lone filmmaker. How else can someone obsess over a project that may be the worst film ever made, starring no one in particular, from a filmmaker no one’s ever heard of and perhaps never will? Digital filmmaking has provided independent filmmakers with the tools to produce watchable films -- but then there's the matter of enticing people to actually watch them.
Hopefully, Firefly will be an exception. Back in ‘97 or ‘98, it could have been the toast of Sundance with a front page article in Variety, reporting on its $1.5 million sale to the Weinsteins. But the current state of independent cinema is full of more creative opportunities than financial rewards. Distribution dollars have dried up and films with higher profiles than Firefly are finding it hard to get released.
Edward Burns’ Purple Violets, which stars himself and Debra Messing, received strong reviews at the Tribeca Film Festival but could not close a deal. Rather than accepting a small theatrical run and DVD release for a meager return, Burns is now releasing the film himself as a digital download on iTunes.
Marcy is part of a group of artists, filmmakers, and musicians who call themselves the Failure Boys. Some are his friends and several are his own brothers. All are very talented and contributed greatly to Firefly. It is precisely this personal, hand-crafted touch that gives the film its real charm. With a story that is as gripping as a Hollywood thriller, Firefly also displays a genuine personal style and wit. Recently, talked with me about Firefly, making films in Minnesota, and the ups and downs of doing it all yourself.
What exactly is a “Failureboy”?
At the time we coined the word, we were all single, living with our parents, trying to make a movie on mini-DV, and aware how pathetic we looked, so we needed to laugh at ourselves. A Failureboy respects his failures for being an important part of his life, sometimes more important than his many successes. We stuck with the name with the intent of staying grounded, but it still represents our insecurities as burgeoning filmmakers and our outlook of the film industry in general. An optimistic production company name with a slick logo won’t make your movie any better, so we went with Failureboys to avoid that desperation.
Like many filmmakers today, you spent the better part of your youth making amateur films with your family and friends. What first sparked your interest in filmmaking and in what ways did your experiences making amateur films influence Firefly?
I was introduced to filmmaking when I was 11 or so: my friend’s family bought a camcorder and I started as an actor in movies directed by their oldest son. Starting off, the only tool we had was the camera. We shot in sequence; the person filming would also be the sound effects guy, making punch noises and gunshots at the right time; if we wanted a score, a boom box was held up to the camera’s microphone and we would start and stop it with every take. I think this lack of tools created a yearning in me, so that later on, when I finally had more tools at my disposal, I fully appreciated them and pushed them to their limits. Shooting in sequence as a kid was essential to my understanding of how to tell a story, but now my movies tend to be too complicated for an in-sequence shoot to be convenient.
Was Firefly your first attempt at a feature, or were there other projects that preceded it?
Firefly was our first legitimate effort. My friends and I have always been partial to feature-length movies. Our three previous attempts were all in the range of 60-75 minutes long, though they should have been much shorter. We’ve tried to push our stories into feature-length territory for a long time, and Firefly just happens to be the first movie to justify its length.
Digital Filmmaking has allowed for the collapse of the standardized production process to some extent, allowing a filmmaker the ability to write, shoot, and edit a movie all at the same time so that all three phases can influence one another to create the final work. Is this something you took advantage of while making the film?
Firefly owes its existence to the freedom digital filmmaking can offer. During the shoot, I shot as much footage as I wanted, with minimal cost, so there was a lot of room for improvisation on the set. We were free to explore several versions of a scene (and this was helpful because the script was never put into final form).
The downside to this method is that it can promote laziness: I found myself making fewer decisions on the set and more decisions in the editing room; I think it’s nice when a director knows what he wants before shooting. Also, digital filmmaking allows one person to essentially do most of the work that would formerly require a rather large and pricey crew. I was able to edit from my own apartment in my spare time, do the visual effects and the sound design. But all of that work still needs doing, and if a small number of people or one person does it all, it can drive that person mad with exhaustion. I had total control of Firefly, but that is not necessarily a good thing.
The making of any movie, let alone an independent one, is very difficult. How long was Firefly’s production schedule and how did you keep yourself and your cast/crew motivated throughout the production process?
We shot nights and weekends from November 2002 to June 2003. We were all friends and family, so the support and motivation was always there. This also comes back to the small-crew mentality, and how digital filmmaking helped us. It's easier to pack everything up and get shooting underway when you've only got more a van full of equipment; mobility keeps the process from dragging. Some of the shooting conditions were brutal, especially the nighttime exterior shots in the winter, but if people got cold, they would just head inside for a few minutes to warm up. At some point it just became about making it to the finish line: everyone had put too much into the project to let it just sit around.
How did you secure the locations for the film? Did you write the script with the locations in mind?
Chris and I wrote the script with the expectation that locations would be difficult to secure, but we got most of them for free. People around Minnesota aren’t accustomed to movie productions, so they will generally accommodate you: all we really had to do was walk in and talk to management, and over half of them would get excited and let us set something up.
In the film, four characters discover that they are connected in a very mysterious way. The story is constructed very tightly so that seemingly minor details reveal themselves to be highly significant by the film’s climax. Did you always have this structure in mind while writing the script, or was this something you discovered in a later draft and/or shooting to link the separate stories? In a broader context, how do you and your brother Chris work together as writers?
This was something that I always intended to do, but it wasn’t until the second or third drafts that certain clues came to mind. I knew the broad story I wanted to tell, but was having trouble with the details, and I needed someone to bounce ideas off of. The night Chris agreed to help me write the script, we put the climax of the story into final form, and then worked backwards from there.
Chris was more enthusiastic about two of the four storylines, so he wrote those scenes, and I wrote the other two storylines. All the while we were suggesting scenes to one another and editing each others’ drafts. Then we put the stories together and the script was finished.
What is the meaning of the title, Firefly?
(Note: Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, created a short-lived, six episode sci-fi series for FOX TV called Firefly, a few years back which became the feature film, Serenity. There was some confusion at certain film fests due to the titles being the same.)
We thought it was cool and a bit mysterious. At the time it was unique: the TV series hadn’t yet aired. It was vague enough to encompass a story that was hard to pitch and hard to categorize. It wouldn’t give anything away, but it would make sense in the end.
Did you and Chris make Del a sci-fi filmmaker working on a movie about aliens as a way of suggesting a certain reading of the movie?
Making Del a sci-fi filmmaker was really important. We wanted to capture how crazy, scary, and wonderful it would be to really see something supernatural like the green light, and Del’s campy interpretations of alien encounters were meant to contrast the realism of the actual sighting.
Without destroying the film’s wonderful sense of enigma, are the events that climax the film meant to suggest something sci-fi or rather supernatural in context? Or do you see it all as more or less the same thing, something beyond our comprehension?
I see it all as more or less the same thing, something beyond our comprehension. To be honest, I can’t fully explain what the green light is, and I never intended to, which is the reason for the tone of Del’s movie at the end, which is meant to suggest that Del’s interpretation isn’t necessarily the correct one. He gives concrete, yet ridiculous, answers to the questions posed. Did Del actually turn around and ask Arnie all those questions? Perhaps, but I don’t think it happened quite as Del shows in his movie version of it.
Was Arnie (Devon Jorlett) serving a kind of penance in the story, saving the lives of others to make up for his own actions?
In a way. The possession of Arnie is in no way sinister. It was a possession of purpose, and in the end it’s mainly about giving Arnie another chance. Having seen two very separate paths, Arnie is now forced to choose.
The character played by Chris, “Del”, seemed to be a satire of the obsessed fanboy filmmaker. He’s got this solitary vision of what would make a great movie even though his work seems to be clearly on the level of an Ed Wood. He treats his actors like props and clearly wants them to just do it his way because it’s clearly the best way. Is there an element of yourself in this character, not in the lack of skill but rather in the sense of wanting and demanding full control over your ideas? Or do you like to work in a much more collaborative way?
There is an element of myself in the character of Del. I have a hard time trusting people with tasks, and tend to delegate responsibility only when the task is something I am not fond of doing. The digital age of filmmaking makes this possible, because I can do nearly everything myself, but I also recognize that as a limitation. It leads to stubbornness. I try to collaborate, but it takes time and a ton of proof before I can trust someone, especially when it’s for a project as personal as Firefly. It’s a constant struggle: believing in yourself and your own ideas vs. recognizing that a fair amount of outside, replenishing energy is healthy.
I was actually quite surprised to see that you played one of the major roles in the film. I checked to see who played the part of “Brandt” because I just thought the actor was very good. Did you cast yourself out of necessity, or do you see yourself as an actor/director like Orson Welles or Woody Allen?
Early on, we looked for someone else to play Brandt, because I don’t enjoy acting, but ultimately I played Brandt out of necessity. We knew it would be a long shoot and we needed to know that all our actors would be available and ready at a moment’s notice, especially for such a major character. And we were sick of telling people we couldn’t pay them.
The entire cast of Firefly, from Chris and yourself to Lindsay Hinman and Sara Persons, was a real pleasure to watch. Did you do formal casting or were the actors familiar faces in your earlier films?
Casting women was the only hard part because we didn’t know any. We had to ask friends if they knew any girls and that’s how we ended up with Sara Persons. We knew Lindsay a little bit from a previous shoot. Everyone else was a friend or family member and was cast because they fit the part naturally, without having to act. The only difficulty was making them comfortable enough to be themselves on camera.
I noticed that you mentioned Ricky Gervais as an influence on your filmmaking as well as Peter Weir. Now, for me, this was SPOT ON. I could see the elements of day-to-day humor and human discomfort (the funny, but also pathetic fall Del takes outside the doughnut shop) along the lines of Gervais’ work in The Office and Extras as well as that specific sense of the mystical that Weir seems to create at the drop of a hat; the surreal feeling of something spiritual on a physical level. Was there a conscious desire to make a film that created this sense of the mysterious and humorous in the mundane?
The funny thing is, I didn’t see any work of Ricky Gervais until after editing was completed. When I saw the BBC’s The Office I became an instant fan and even included a sound bite in the movie. While shooting, we tried to put a lot of subtle humor in the scenes to give it our flavor.
As for Peter Weir, I think I’m drawn to his movies for precisely the reason you mentioned -- his ability to create the feeling of something spiritual on a physical level -- and I did make a conscious effort to create the sense of the mysterious in the mundane; at times in the movie, I fear that is the only thing going for it, since the story structure isn’t standard and comforting. I relied upon that sense of mystery to pull the audience through to the end.
I read that you shot the film with the DVX100 otherwise known as the “24P”. Tell me about your experience with the camera and what you learned about shooting on digital video. Did you compose the film 4x3 or widescreen?
I had been waiting for years for a camera to have the ability to shoot 24P. The DVX100 was a dream-come-true. I shot the film 4X3 but kept in mind that I would be cropping the image in post-production. I ended up adjusting every shot in After Effects while letterboxing the movie. The most important thing is that the camera excited me and gave me permission to attempt a feature film; I felt it legitimized my efforts. It was a new tool that I had yearned for.
There seemed to be a few digital effects and matte shots in the film which were pretty sophisticated. Did you do all of the post-production work by yourself?
I did. I used After Effects and struggled through countless hours trying to get the visual effects right. When we shot the movie, I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to accomplish some of the shots, and it was a slow process of trial-and-error to get them right in post-production.
The score for the film really helped to create a strong sense of mystery and a melancholic atmosphere. How do you and Adam Anderson go about scoring a film? Was the score written first and then cut to or was the film locked before a single note was written?
Adam and I wrote separate themes and traded demo tracks for at least a year during the shooting and editing process. A lot of themes were created, but in June of 2004 we headed up to my parents’ cabin with the themes narrowed down to a few. The picture was locked and we laid down single guitar tracks for about 12 of the scenes (those we deemed most important), timing them to the visual.
Over the next couple of months, we built on those tracks using synthesized instruments that didn’t sound cheap. The rest of the scenes I did on my own, using synth instruments and the themes Adam and I created. We basically knew our strengths: Adam plays guitar, I play the keyboard, but neither of us knows how to read or write music. So we hummed and strummed and guessed our way through the themes and recorded as many live instruments as we could get our hands on before using synths to bulk up the score.
Firefly has been doing the festival rounds for about a year now and it seems to have received a very positive reaction. What is the situation regarding its release either theatrically or on DVD?Not what we had hoped for, but we are optimistic that soon we will be able to see a DVD release.
It seems that filmmakers all see Sundance and a few other festivals as the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket to fame and fortune. What was the whole festival experience really like? Did you personally attend all of the festivals including Amsterdam? What was the most important thing you gained from those experiences?
We’ve had at least one person at most of the festivals, but there were a couple we couldn’t make it to. We originally only wanted that Golden Ticket, and were crestfallen when that didn’t happen, but it was because of the submission to Sundance that our festival run began, at CineVegas in June of 2005.
The most important thing I learned from the film festival experience is that not everyone will have patience to sit through your movie, nor should they. Prior to Firefly, except for a couple shorts in film school, all my movies premiered in my parents’ living room, and those in the audience made exceptions to the bad acting, slow pacing, and self-indulgence in our movies.
It was a wake-up call to have a jury and a couple celebrities sitting behind me in a packed theater in Vegas, watching this movie I made. I felt for the first time the responsibility a filmmaker has to entertain his audience. I felt the weight of it. It was a torturous experience, and every time someone checked his or her cell phone for the time, I wanted to fast forward the movie.
After the first public screening at CineVegas, I cut 10 minutes from the movie. Its reception at festivals has been mixed; people either love it or think it "looks like a student film." It makes me want to tighten up any project I do in the future.
Do you think that distributors are reluctant to release independent films without a star name and/or strong genre and exploitation elements?
Yes. Those are all great excuses we’ve used, especially the one about not having a star.
Do you see any possibilities for independent filmmakers in the future to self-distribute their films via the internet and digital downloads? How can a filmmaker build an audience for his work?
I haven’t really thought about distributing Firefly via the internet, but I can see that as a possibility. To build an audience, I think you’ve got to do your own thing and achieve a unique style that people will want to return to.
What project are you currently developing or shooting? Has the experience of Firefly changed the way you are approaching it?
My friends and I have gone through the development stage on about four or five projects since Firefly. All of them had merit, but for some reason we dropped them: too hard to shoot, can’t finish the script, etc.
We’re about to start shooting a horror movie. This time, we’re focusing less on mystery and plot details and more on the pacing, raw emotion, and imagery, at the risk of oversimplifying it. We hit a low point after Firefly, where we just couldn’t get anything going again, and we just want to do something fun and new. We will challenge ourselves more with the physical aspect of filmmaking (i.e., how do we make a severed leg look real?) rather than the storytelling aspect.
What is your overall plan for yourself as a filmmaker? Do you intend to stay in Minnesota and work as a regional filmmaker like a George Romero or Larry Fessenden, or is a Hollywood career something you are actively seeking?
I lived in Hollywood for six months and accomplished nothing other than the realization that I couldn’t succeed there. Looking back, I was completely unprepared. I don’t know what I expected to happen, but I realized that I didn’t belong there.
Considering the kind of movies I want to make and the way I want to make them, it’s an advantage to be based in Minnesota, or anywhere outside of Hollywood. The previous ten years of my life, I had been making movies almost constantly. In Hollywood I didn’t know where to begin. I didn’t want to network, pitch ideas, or work as a production assistant; I wanted to make a movie, and back in Minnesota, with my brothers and friends, I could do that. I wouldn’t mind ending up in Hollywood in the future, but not until I have a purpose for being there.
For more information on Firefly, Marcy, and the rest of the Failure Boys, go to their website, Failureboys.com.