Tuesday, June 16, 2009

AFF Filmmaker Follow Up with Jacob Medjuck

Jacob Medjuck splashed onto the AFF scene with his film "Summerhood" in 2008. The film, which centers around four friends (who just happen to hate each other) is a new twist on movies for and about children. 

We caught up with Jacob and talked about the challenges of "Summerhood", his lunch chat with Phil Rosenthal and other AFF experiences. 

1. Tell me about your film that screened at the festival.

I found my diary from when I was 10; a pink Pink Panther spring-locked bible of embarrassment. I thought, wouldn't it be fun to hear kids act this out loud, and quickly began the romantic adventure of SUMMERHOOD: Boy meets a Story. Boy wants to make a film. Story doesn't want to be a film, wants to be a TV series. Story settles, becomes a movie. Execs like the movie - it becomes a TV series. Boy gets movie, Story gets a TV series. Everyone lives happily ever after on blu ray. Somewhere in there - I landed at the Austin Film festival:

• From the Austin Festival I was invited to PIXAR to screen Summerhood for their genius artists. 

• From the Austin Festival I struck up continuing friendships with L.A. production companies that have since had me in to pitch new films, adapt books they've optioned, and or to consider directing their properties. 

• From the festival John August blogged about our film - on his website; part of a true nutritious breakfast. 

• We've been to 8 festivals now and won 5. 

• We were just invited to the Premiere of Harry Potter in Italy. They will open that festival and we will play the 2nd night, to a jury of 2,500 international teens. No adults. Very cool.

Summerhood has re-written the tone for films with children. Honest. Sincere. And heartfelt. No veneer. 

  2. Did you face any specific challenges when making this film?

There were MANY challenges in making the film, including the time my father showed up on set and threatened to kill me. But the industry challenge has been introducing a tone that is respectful of how teens actually feel without the "Leave It To Beaver" treatment that every major release seems to mandate. Putting a fig leaf on kid's emotions is SOOOOOO DISINTERESTING to me (and a brand killer too). Kids don't like it and they are abandoning the properties that talk down to them. Summerhood is fun. It's light. And it's sincere. Oddly ironic: as an independent filmmaker - All I could afford was "sincere." And I believe it to be far more fundamental than lasers or fairy dust if you're trying to entertain. Start with sincerity, add lasers.. stir. (...We have a don't ask don't tell policy at the office re: lasers).

  3. What great lessons about filmmaking did you take away from this project?

Develop the work.    

Re-write until you bleed. 

Then get someone else to type for you. Cut. Cleave. Create better scenes. Visual solutions.  

A 135 page screenplay - is the SHORTEST novel ever written. But it is not a movie script. 

Take the time to respect the budget, the schedule, the runtime, during prep. Prior. Get the script ready to shoot. 

....unless it's going to snow

Then just handheld your way into war and hope to finish. 

The balance: It's impossible to control the cosmos. Sometimes key elements align but for a brief window. I had the prospect of money, a location, weather and a script. So I called up my film ninjas. 
I asked my Production Manager, "How long to shoot a summer camp film?" 
He replied, "6 weeks."  
I asked him, "How long until its snows here?" 
His answer, "...8 weeks." 

With two weeks to prep, we cast, built and financed. We were literally up against the wrath of nature. And I will admit, that had us on set before I had a chance to cut the script down properly. I went to set with 135 pages. Never ever ever ever do that. I figured we'd shorten the film in post - but we actually had to re-write the PLOT in post - with only the available footage we'd shot. An unbelievably difficult but creative challenge. I can't believe we survived..  p.s. - it's also so much easier to change commas in Final Draft, then to digitally paint trees over actors on screen whose roles you've cut form the story. 

But as fates had it - on the last day of filming... it snowed. 

Our action couldn't have been a second later. And a year later - the economy collapsed and we wouldn't have managed financing. Sometimes, instincts are all you have. I shot a novel. The battle was waged along my hairline. Some good men were lost. But I walked away with a film, and more forehead to tan. 

Still - Don't ever do what I did: Financing during lunch breaks on set; Writing the script in post production; Offering to wash the child actors after an impromptu food fight.

Unless you want to make a film. Then do all of it

4. Was there a film or films that influenced "Summerhood"?

- I stole my camera height from E.T. - keep the camera at the height of the children, and the film takes place in their world. 

- I wanted to make a "spin-the-bottle" scene in the style of Deer Hunter. I learned the hard way growing up that spin-the-bottle is a poor cheat for breaking the ice with a crush. The bottle seemed to land on a lot of dudes before it finally pointed to the girl I actually had the crush on.

- Tonally - "Freak's and Geeks" got it right. The Judd Apatow TV show. I made my core team watch the whole series as we prepped. I even cast Joe Flaherty from it. I love that show. 

- The Wonder Years is 20+ years old. And while inspiring me greatly, it needing an update. And to me that meant: the "F" word. We snuck one in there. 

Kids today are "older ", they live in a world saturated by information. They process everything with a deeper capacity, awareness. That needs to be reflected in our writing. 

What got me off my ass to make Summerhood was the feeling that current movies don't seem to respect/reflect kids; how they actually are. And being the largest movie going audience, why would producers invest in turning them off the product. 

So, my film references were mostly contemporary romantic comedies. 

I'm a giant girl like that.

...Thanks a lot spin-the-bottle.

Jacob hashes out details with some of the "Summerhood" cast.

 5. Do you have a favorite moment of your time at the festival last year?

I'm sitting in a packed restaurant. Alone. 
A bright lanky fellow approaches my table, he whispers, "Is this where they sit the Jews?"
I laughed outright, and asked him to join me. We talked. Great guy. " Phil." 
As we talked, it unfolded that Phil didn't have a script in competition. He didn't have a movie screening either. WTF?
No film. No script? Big festival badge....  
oh yeah....
"Phil," I asked, "are you a panelist?"  
He was.
"Phil," I asked, "Are you Phil Rosenthal?" 
He was.
(Phil Rosenthal is the other half of the 500 million dollar syndicated mega-hit Everybody Loves Raymond).
While I gawk, Phil gets a text message. Barack Obama has just used in an election speech one of the jokes Phil wrote for him. Phil Rosenthal. Genius. Nice guy. Eating my fries.  
"Jacob, I was supposed to meet some friends for lunch." He tells me.
I fear our time has expired. Instead - he suggests they join us. He calls Larry to ask, "Larry, come over here instead."
Moments after, in walks Lawrence "Larry" Kasdan. Writer of Indiana Jones, Star Wars and The Big Chill. If I had eaten  anything earlier I'd have shit myself. With Larry is his son  Jake. I'm great with kids. Except this kid wrote and directed Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared and Walk Hard. I lack all the measures to present myself further with dignity. I lose my mind. After all - Raiders Of The Lost Ark was the first film I ever saw. And I saw it in Jerusalem; which is like seeing the film "in it's original packaging." 

The big deal was this: I was born in a time when movies were cheaper than baby sitters. At age 3, my parents used to leave me in movie theaters for matinees on end. The very first being Raiders.  "It's a film about Noah's ARK." Dad suggested. By the time the Nazi's face melted off - I had already lost the first 8 years of my childhood. 

I leveled Larry with an 18 minute dirge re: his archeology opus and the impact it had on me, with the B story being the circumstances by which I saw it and the resulting trauma decades since. 

Jake Kasdan's film, The TV set, steered me away from television altogether, while his Freaks and Geeks became aforementioned inspiration for the tone of Summerhood. 

After much debate - Phil and Larry turned to me and decided that MY parents were crazier (to have left me in the theaters as a baby), then the infamous crazy parents on Raymond that Phil built an empire around. 

It was a strangely cathartic and vindicating meal. 

Food for thought.   

Thank you Phil.

Thank you Austin Film Festival.  

  6. What event at the Austin Film Festival would you recommend never missing?

Just being in the hallways I had great discussions. Chat up the people in line with you. The festival "is" the event, the panels are secondary. We showered for a reason? Right? Meet everyone. 

Otherwise, I tend to enjoy the annual special screening of Summerhood.

Jacob at the 2008 AFF with AFI Dallas programmer James Faust
7. What are you working on now? Any projects lined up?

Ask me at the festival in October...I tend to shoot right before it snows.

Its not too late to enter your film!

Late post-mark deadline: July 3rd

Very late deadline: July 15th

Just one more you reason you should be at the Austin Film Festival & Conference in October...

This year's panel discussions will feature case studies of the writing and script-to-screen production process with the writers and creators for such films and shows as Twilight, "Lost", Valkyrie, Watchmen, The Secret Life of Bees, "Mad Men" and the HBO hit series "Entourage"

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