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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Sundance panel: `Puccini for Beginners'

Effie Brown is moderating a panel this morning on the making of “Puccini for Beginners.” She says she didn’t believe, when she saw the movie, that it wasn’t shot on film. Her panelists are Maria Maggenti, the writer/director; Justin Kirk, one of the stars; Susan Graef, the editor; Aleta Shaffer, the production designer; and the camera operator, Manuel Billeter.

Maggenti says the shoot lasted 18 days, working six days a week. They shot about 7-10 pages of the script each day. “InDigEnt allowed me to make this movie,” she says. “They did `Tadpole’ and `Pieces of April.’ Their model is everyone gets paid $100 a day, but you get profit participation. Budgets are very low. You work in digital. Everything moves very quickly. A filmmaker can come in with her crew, and make her movie. We also edited at InDigEnt’s offices in New York.” Prep for the shoot was 15 days.

They used two cameras, to try to get as much coverage as possible.

It sounds like the cast got together for one dinner, one read-through, and then shooting started. Not much rehearsal.

To keep the shoot streamlined, “it really helped that I had pared the script down,” at Gary Winnick’s suggestion. (Winnick is one of the founders of InDigEnt.)

“It helped that we shot in my apartment” to keep the budget down, Maggenti says. “Some people want $5000 a day for their location.” The production designer says she’d warned against that – Maggenti would need a “sanctuary” during the shoot. But Maggenti did it anyway – she had a two-bedroom, so at least one bedroom wasn’t used for the film.

Maggenti says she looked at a few technical things with the dailies, but didn’t scrutinize them super-carefully. It’s hard to look at dailies when you’ve been working 12 hours, she says, and you’ve got locations falling through.

Graef says she wasn’t previously a fan of shooting digitally, with two cameras, and the almost-infinite footage it creates. (Also the ease of reshooting.) Often, having less footage to work with forces the editor and director to make interesting creative decisions. “The thing about digital that is a little bit unfortunate is that it gives producers and directors the ability to go back and go back. You start to just beat the story to death – you don’t challenge yourself to work with [the footage] you have, which I think is a good challenge.” The movie was edited on Avid.

They had three screenings of “Puccini” before they submitted it to Sundance. The film was falling flat with test audiences. The producer wasn’t sure they should submit it to the festival in 2006.

“The editing was hell – I’ve never been so miserable,” Maggenti says. “I was standing by the window: should I jump, should I jump?”

They eventually decided to put the climax of the movie at the beginning, which makes the audience wonder how the characters will get there. They also edited the film down from 113 minutes to 82.

Billeter says they shot with a new Sony XD Cam (standard definition), which records directly onto a DVD-like optical disc. Sony loaned them one camera for free, and they rented another one. They got free lenses from Canon.

Maggenti explains that InDigEnt stands for – “aside from poverty” – independent digital entertainment. Everything the NYC-based company makes is shot on digital. She just wanted to tell the story, and didn’t care how it was shot. The movie doesn’t yet exist on film. “What everyone has seen here at Sundance has been digitally projected,” Maggenti says.