Arizona Films, entertainment, Film, Film Festival, Independent Film, Independent Film Directing, Indie Cinema, Indie Film Acting, Out of Focus movie, Script Writing, Supernatural Thrillers, Think Tank Film Festival
As Three Horizons Productions (THP) gears up for the premiere of Out of Focus, I spoke with writer/director, Remi Vaughn. Her tenacity and dedication to her project, along with her keen instinct for team-building culminates with this long-awaited screening. We spoke about her professional background, which includes her creative endeavors as well as her financial experience and business acumen.
What was the inspiration for Out of Focus?
A few years back, I had started to write a script called Off Balance. The script to some extent was the foundation for both Out of Focus and The Kiss. When I wrote Off Balance, I was told by producers and script doctors that it was too complex and I needed to streamline the story layers and characters. After lots of pain and suffering – and fun too – I re-wrote Off Balance several times until it was made more direct for mainstream purposes. The two main story layers I had removed, even though I really liked them, became Out Of Focus and The Kiss. From there, each script became a story of its own, born out of Off Balance.
The overall inspiration for Out Of Focus comes from my fascination with shamanism and supernatural powers. Even though I am skeptical about all of that, I found it exciting and filled with surprises. With Out Of Focus, I wanted to blend shamanistic mind powers with technology, namely in the movie, a vintage still camera. Blending the two proved to me a lot more challenging than I expected, but once I created the rules of this supernatural world, everything fell into place.
When writing the screenplay, did you have the plot and characters fleshed out first? Or did you find that some plot elements or character traits needed to be revised?
When I write, I develop the characters and outline of the script first. Most of the time, I don’t know what comes first: story or characters; it’s really organic and it happens at once, subconsciously.
My first draft is from the heart and the imagination. I don’t pay attention to dialogue, narrative, or structure. I just write whatever comes to me as part of the story. I let the characters become me and take over. I don’t censor myself; I just write. Then, the logical mind has to take over and that’s when I must be very careful. I ruined one of my early scripts doing that and trying to listen to everyone’s comments (producers, script doctors, etc.). At the end of the day, it’s important to follow your instinct and not over-write it to the point where you have lost all focus in the story because you’re trying to please everyone.
Re-write your script with a clear thematic vision in mind and then fine-tune your characters and story around that theme. Don’t try to make everything perfect, because nothing is and you’ll get frustrated trying. I am now experienced enough to balance the heart and the mind when I do my re-writes.
How many revisions did you go through while completing the Out of Focus script (the feature-length script)?
Several. Actually, 17 versions including the latest one. Out Of Focus is a story with four narrative layers happening in parallel and as the story progresses all four merge to interact and take over the resolution of the conflict. It’s also a fairly expensive movie to produce/direct because of the special effects required to create a supernatural world in CGI.
Then, I decided to write a short film so I could raise enough funding to put together a strong calling card for THP as a professional production company; and for me, it would also be a calling card as a writer, producer, and director.
The short film (click here for trailer) is an extract from the feature length script and not a stand-alone narrative; I don’t explain everything that happens in the short film and I only provide limited back story elements as well as limited insight into the main characters. It ends on a cliffhanger (as I don’t want to give away the ending) and I did make some changes to the story and characters so I didn’t have to reveal all the twists and plot points of the feature. What I really did for the short film is extract the scenes I believed would best showcase the story line and the characters of the movie. The short film is only a representation of what the vision of the feature film would be.
For instance, in the feature length script, there are five narrative layers:
- The story of a young woman shaman (Aella) who has incredible mind powers but could
care less about putting them to good use, having too much fun with her friends and carefree about her life and future.
- The story of the shaman’s mentor (Loki) who encourages her to embrace her mind powers and talent as a shaman because only her mind powers can stop the evil the media calls the Phantom Killer.
- The story of the forensics photographer (Nick) working on the Phantom Killer case; this photographer owns a still camera that captures the victims’ lives before they die; he believes that the power of his camera and photographs will make him rich and famous.
- The story of the main detective on the case (Jack), who is being challenged to forget about the laws and the rules to stop this Phantom Killer, and that this evil can only be stopped by non-traditional detective work.
- The story of a preacher (Timothy), who believes this evil is the devil and can only be stopped if people repent from their sins; this preacher is intent on stopping the unholy ways of the pagans as he calls them, that is anyone who doesn’t adhere to his religious beliefs.
The short film introduces the three main characters – Aella, Loki, and Nick – who drive the main story.
I’ve been told the schedule was tight for the Out of Focus shoot. What steps did you take to ensure a fluid work environment?
Lots of preparation work. I thrive on preparing as much as possible before shooting. I want to have everything documented, thought out, listed, etc. I love the preparation phase because I know that when it’s over, it’s time to shoot. The more prepared I am, the more creative I am on set. Because I knew every page of the script, every shot, I was able to make changes in real-time to accommodate delays, budget constraints, location issues, etc. and still get all the shots I needed for the final product.
The cast of Out of Focus has indicated you have a very organic approach to direction. This approach gave them a sense of support with sufficient freedom to interpret the characters. What is your guiding philosophy to direction?
Because of the extensive preparation work, and because I created and wrote the script, I knew all the characters inside out. I also knew that every scene could be interpreted differently by the actors; that means, I knew the latitude I could play with; I also knew that I would have choices for my final edit.
I love working with the actors because in essence you are bringing the characters to life. It’s like writing and re-writing except this time it’s for “real” – not just words on a page. And then the actors will have their own interpretation, often on the spur of the moment. So, why not? Let’s try it once or twice. If it doesn’t work, it’s OK because I know I will still shoot my original interpretation. That’s part preparation work, part creativity. In many instances, for my final edit, I selected clips where I was experimenting with the actors and where the actors themselves were experimenting with their characters. It’s the fun of it all; it’s exhilarating.
My philosophy is that there is no silly interpretation on what the character says or does. It’s all about wanting to experiment (even at time pushing it beyond the personality of the character) and making the right choices on set and in the editing bay.
You’ve dedicated a great deal of time to getting Out of Focus to the screen. What has been your biggest hurdle? Your biggest success?
The special effects by far. I had to go through three different teams to get the right VFX. When you have limited funding, it’s really tough to get the right people. Everyone tried their best but some didn’t have enough experience to make it work. In the end, it all worked out but it was the major hurdle that slowed down our post-production work. However, the journey was critical for all of us at THP as it brought us all deep inside the bowels of the VFX world: how they are done, how to better set your shots in production for maximum efficiency in post, how to work cross-platforms, etc. As you can imagine, we are now ready to tackle the most complex and creative VFX that are yet to come – for the feature film, of course!
The second big hurdle was processing the 4K footage from the Red Camera. When we finished shooting in the summer of 2008, the editing software out there still didn’t have the plug-ins, so I really had to wait until December 2008 to start editing. Then, I went back in the summer of 2009 for two pickup days as I wanted to shoot an alternate ending to what I had shot. The new ending was meant to be more of a cliffhanger.
The biggest success was the overall journey. It created a sense of team spirit with the key team members as we spent our evenings, nights, holidays, and weekends working on the project. After spending four years working together, I know that THP has a strong team of talented people who are not afraid of hard work, are passionate in what they do, dedicated to getting the best quality possible within the constraints of any projects. We know we can do it, regardless of the challenges; we know we’re not going to give up; we know that we have each other’s backs. How often in the working world can you say that about people you work with? Not often would be my answer (based on my own experience).
This team work is what has made Out Of Focus a successful project – every team member played a role. It couldn’t have been done if one of us had quit. But no one did. Now, we’re ready for the next big project. We’ll get The Kiss done to the utmost quality with passion, talent, and dedication.
What brought you to filmmaking? What is your educational background? Did you always have an interest in filmmaking?
I’m not sure myself. When I was very young I became fascinated with moving pictures whether on a TV set or a theatrical screen. I watched lots of movies on TV, at the theater, TV shows – to the point when my parents were wondering why I was so obsessed about it all. I collected stories and articles about filmmaking, cast, crew, and just about anything related to movies. I was a moving picture encyclopedia at the time.
I wanted to have a movie camera. Since my parents couldn’t afford to purchase a movie camera, I went into photography, and, with my first still camera, I started to take pictures of everything around me. But film was expensive so I was not able to develop all of it; however, I learned all the techniques on my own and by reading books. I really wanted to tell stories.
In reality, it all started with writing. When I was about 7 years old, all I was doing was writing all kinds of stories, science-fiction, adventure, mystery by hand. I was using my favorite movies and TV shows as examples and imagined new stories that would happen to the characters beyond the movies/shows in which they first appeared. I tried to imagine what they would do if they were in a different movie.
Eventually, my family took pity on me and got me a typewriter, which was awesome. Then I was off and typing. I took typing lessons. I typed story upon story, nonstop. I was able to generate pages and pages of narrative very quickly to the point where my writing/literature teachers gave me free reign with my writing.
But I wanted more than that. I wanted to bring the stories to life. I would then get my friends together and would reenact the stories I had written. I didn’t know it at the time, but in essence I was producing and directing my stories, in real-time, creating fun games with my friends. We all used to disappear for hours at a time to play-act these stories. I did this until high school and then things changed; you know, you kind of grow up. One of my literature professors (I can never forget her), set me on the path of writing at a much higher level, giving me the structure I was formally lacking. When I was about 14, I realized I wanted to get into filmmaking.
So you realized it was possible to be a filmmaker?
Yes! I didn’t notice at first what I was doing. Obviously, I was writing; I had my camera. Then I was reenacting the stories.
It sounds like imaginative play developed into filmmaking.
Yes. It started informally, but, after my literature and writing professor took me under her wing, it really took off. I even won some awards for my writing.
When I was still in middle school I decided I wanted to move to the U.S. to learn filmmaking. From that time on, I did everything I could to prepare myself for coming over here. I took an associate’s degree in English while at the same time I went to the National French Cinematography School in Paris. I took all the tests I could, so I could be accepted into an American university to continue my filmmaking studies. I was accepted at several large universities (UCLA, USC, Columbia). Unfortunately, there were no scholarships or grants for foreign students at the time. The costs were much too high for my family so I had to find universities that would offer academic scholarships or grants to foreign students. I was very fortunate that I was accepted for a full scholarship at Bowling Green State University in their film and media communication program. I finished my film and media studies at the University of Utah, working multiple internships and entry-level jobs for NPR, PBS, NBC, and other independent media. I was very fortunate to have been given the trust and confidence from seasoned professionals to write and produce media projects that were broadcast to the public. Amazingly, I eventually got paid for the work I did as a student.
What kind of projects did you do for NPR and PBS?
I did local and regional stories and documentaries. I interviewed some politicians, including a senator. Then, for a few years, I took a slight detour in life and worked internationally; however, I continued to learn the art and science of filmmaking and writing. Then, I put in place Three Horizons Productions. The objective of THP was for me to formalize my passion in filmmaking and multi-media. I knew many people who shared the same passion and we were able to start producing some of my written pieces, mainly short films, commercials, public service announcements, trailers, etc. The interesting aspect of setting up THP was that everyone came together through various common business interests in Information Technology and Computer Security, both in the corporate world and in entrepreneurial businesses. It’s amazing how many multi-talented people there are outside their business or corporate lives. All in all, I can say that the people who are now part of THP are those who are dedicated, loyal, and passionate. There is unconditional trust among us to perform the utmost quality work at all levels.
As you can see, THP has come a long way and we are a more mature company, ready to produce our first feature film, The Kiss, a psychological/serial killer thriller. The Kiss is based on a tabloid news article from 19th century France, but it does take place in present time.
Was the process of funding difficult for your first endeavors?
Over time, I became wiser and understood that in order to write, produce, and direct, I really needed to put in place a business structure. Filmmaking and media production is a business and without the business structure you have nothing despite having great ideas, stories, and other talented team members. It’s next to impossible to move forward without business plans, marketing strategies, financial plans, etc. With THP, I have been able to combine my creativity with my business experience. In addition to film and media degrees, I also have an MSBA in financial management and computer science.
So far all of our projects have been done on a shoestring budget with limited investment from external parties. Now, we’re ready to acquire equity funding not just for our first feature film, The Kiss, but for other projects and work for hire we are being asked to write, produce, and direct.
Do you feel that women are under-represented behind the camera?
Let’s say that you can’t believe how many times I’ve been told it’s going to be tough for me to direct my first-feature film, The Kiss. No one tells me it’s because I’m a woman, but it’s loud and clear. I got so weary of hearing “you won’t be able to get all that funding or name talent for your first feature film” that I put together a four-page list of first-time directors (men and women) – many who were unknown, with limited experience, and yet got the funding, the cast, and got their first films. I could have put together 10 pages or more of these first-time directors. It’s interesting when you look at the stats at how many men got millions of dollars to direct their first feature film and when you look at their background they had less than me – or at least equal to me. Yes, there are exceptions to that, but overall, there seems to be more acceptance for men as first-time directors than for women. I live it time and time again as the THP team pitches our projects, starting with The Kiss.
As a filmmaker in Arizona, what could the film community do to help legislators recognized the importance of tax incentives? Will this encourage more films to be brought to Arizona? Could working with the business community help raise awareness and get legislators to see the business-sense in providing competitive tax incentives?
A few months back I wrote an article about this topic and two of the THP team members have reached out to legislators, but it doesn’t seem that many legislators really understand the real economic value of supporting filmmaking and multi-media projects in Arizona. It’s a shame because we have several universities and private institutions here with very solid and well-respected film and multi-media programs – and what happens when the students graduate? They leave Arizona because there is no work in this industry here. They go to New Mexico, California, Louisiana, Florida, e.g., where these states have tax incentives to bring in productions. I’m not just talking about movies that come here once and then leave; I’m talking about recurring productions: web series, TV shows, social media series, advertising, commercials, etc. You name it. These are productions that would provide strong economic opportunities for people in Arizona and generate more taxable income as a result. It’s real work; it would allow educated people to stay here and work here.
Regarding our first feature film, The Kiss, our current negotiations with investors, producers, and distribution companies are very clear: plan to shoot your movie in a state that offers tax credits. So, even though I wrote The Kiss with Arizona in mind, I will have to rewrite it to fit the new state we will be shooting in. It’s too bad – but filmmaking and media production is a business that investors want to generate a profit from – and Arizona makes it very difficult for all parties to be successful.
In the end, people will continue to create for film, TV, and multi-media channels. I am positive and will say that Arizona will see the light, sooner or later. In the meantime, I’m moving forward with our film and multi-media projects wherever they will take place. Yet, I am looking for options to shoot The Kiss movie project in Arizona – I’m not giving up! So much can be done here…
Three Horizons Productions is a team of independent filmmakers who want to develop, acquire, and produce multi-media projects that showcase inspirational themes, compelling stories, and provocative characters to entertain or educate international audiences. Three Horizons Productions, located in Arizona, has a global outreach.