Josh Stifter on Making His Second Feature
Indie Film Junction | June 15, 2020
Indie Film Junction | June 15, 2020
IFJ was fortunate to have the opportunity to talk with Josh Stifter, alumni of the Robert Rodriguez-produced Rebel Without A Crew series and director of The Good Exorcist, about his latest film, Greywood’s Plot, now available for purchase at joshstifter.com. Big thanks to Josh for doing IFJ’s first interview!
IFJ: Congratulations on releasing your second feature, Greywood’s Plot! Can you tell me what it’s about?
JS: Yeah! Thanks. Greywood’s Plot is a black and white, horror/comedy about two friends who adventure into the woods after receiving a tape that they believe (sort of) has footage of a chupacabra. But, obviously being a horror movie, things aren’t exactly what they seem on Doug Greywood’s huge plot of land.
IFJ: What inspired the idea for the movie?
JS: Turning 30. Haha!
I always had one thing on my bucket list – make a feature film. But life, work, everything else got in the way of that. I had made hundreds of hours of cartoons and videos, personally and professionally, but I had never told a cohesive full feature story. I had this idea about a mad scientist that turns a depressed wannabe famous youtuber into a spiderman. Like a prequel to something like Terror is a Man or Island of Dr. Moreau. I had worked in Kevin Smith’s movie Tusk and I loved that crazy idea but thought I had an original, different take on the concept. I love that sort of nasty body horror.. I mean, The Fly and The Thing are my two favorite movies… so I wanted to try my hand at doing my personal take on what that is. But turning 30, I realized I hadn’t done it and I got super depressed.
But instead of just moping in this, I decided to rectify it and go make something. I took out all my old notes on this “spider man” movie and started writing. For my 31st birthday, Daniel, Keith, Strauss and I went out into the woods and started filming. It took us multiple years, tons of rewrites, and the movie completely changed over the years to become the lil’ chupacabra movie it is.
IFJ: What does your writing routine look like?
JS: I live by Save the Cat and Syd Fields books. I always start with a notebook and notecards. I start writing ideas like crazy. My FIRST thing I do is come up with 5 words that are the theme for the project. For Greywood’s Plot is was stuff like friendship, monsters, failure, nasty, and fun…. there might have been more but it was something like that. Then I start writing down scenes I know I want to do. Often I’ll have an ending scene in mind, a few fun scenes that I want to do, and a few major plot points. Then I start building the rest of the scenes and connecting the pieces of the structure. I also write down a sentence of WHY the scene exists. If I can’t come up with a good reason, the scene gets thrown out.
Once I finally start writing, I have an interesting technique. I write 5 pages and then move to a new location. It seems like that would waste a lot of time, but it gives me little milestones to keep going. On a given day I might start in my studio, move to Carribou coffee, go to the park, write in my hammock, and ended up writing 5 pages in bed. Everyone has her or his own technique and I think the key is figuring out what works best for you.
IFJ: Did you design the film around available resources (props, locations, frequent collaborators, etc.), or did you just attempt to contain the scope to keep the budget low and figure out how to shoot it after the screenplay was complete?
JS: I wrote with what I had for the most part. We knew we had this cabin to film at so we started with that. I assumed we could find a bar that would let us film there (which luckily The Wicked Wort was extremely kind and allowed us to film there on a Sunday morning). My sister has a few acres of woods in her backyard so we just made that look much bigger than it really is. It was definitely all about just using what we could.
Instead of having a birthday party, I told people to come out to my sister’s for my birthday and bring zombie makeup. A bunch of friends did and instead of a “birthday party” we filmed the living forest sequence. It was about finding fun ways to get people to collaborate and help us make the best possible movie we could with no money.
IFJ: Can you share the budget and maybe a rough breakdown of how the money was used?
JS: I honestly don’t even know. The most expensive part was the booze and 2 nights staying at a hotel… how much does that cost?
IFJ: What was the post-production workflow? Did you do it all yourself?
JS: I did almost everything in post-production by myself, but the one thing I did different was not sectioning off production and post. Instead, we’d film a few days, then I’d edit the sequences we had, watch them and show them to Daniel (my producer) and then we’d go shoot more. We were filming and editing until 2 weeks before the movie was due to film festivals. The “dinner knocking scene” was actually filmed last minute because I thought there was something missing from the relationship between two of the characters. So, Daniel, Strauss and I got all of our gear together and filmed in the basement and the store Daniel worked at.
I had a few friends help with some of the animation and the CGI spider, but overall I did 98% of the visual effects myself. I learned to do 5.1 surround sound mixing and mastering. I did my own foley sounds. I color corrected the movie myself (which is actually much more challenging in black and white than I expected). And I’m not saying this to brag, but to show that it’s possible to do it all yourself. It’s taken me 30 years of playing with cameras and editing to know enough to be able to do all the processes, but with youtube and all of the other amazing resources, I truly believe anyone out there can learn how to do it all as well.
IFJ: Given all the competition for people’s attention, what sustains your enthusiasm for the long, arduous process of filmmaking?
JS: Little steps. Just taking it a day at a time and remembering that this story is important to me and I want to get it told. I really believed that the story of Dom, Miles, and Doug was something worth telling and it always made it easier to keep going whenever a roadblock or some sort of self-doubt would get in the way.
IFJ: As a director with multiple nano-budget features under your belt, was there anything you learned from making The Good Exorcist that you employed during the production of Greywood’s Plot?
JS: Everything! Without The Good Exorcist, I probably wouldn’t have ever finished Greywood’s Plot. I learned tricks on how to enhance a performance in the edit. I learned how to utilize what I had around me to make moments feel and look more iconic. I learned how to record audio (and how not to) and how crucial it was to start mixing and layering sounds early on in the edit to maximize my time for the final sound mix. And I also learned how I wanted to tell a story. TGE was fun but we were so rushed it was hard to really know what the movie was feeling like while we were making it. With Greywood’s, I chose to start editing early on and take the production process slow so that I could feel out what the movie actually was versus what I wanted it to be or what I was guessing it was by the filming process.
IFJ: Is there any aspect of filmmaking that you approached differently this time because of your prior experience?
JS: I definitely trusted my gut more and just ran with some very silly concepts. Scenes that I thought would work in TGE sometimes fell flat, while others I contemplated cutting from the script turned out to be some of the best. I had scenes that I didn’t take as far as I wanted in TGE because I was nervous the audience wouldn’t go along for the ride, but after finishing the movie, I wished I had taken them further – so with this one, I just pushed myself as far as I could to surprise people.
IFJ: Throughout all of your productions, what is something you were concerned about that turned out to not be a big deal?
JS: Performances. I always fear that the performances are going to not play the way they’re intended to. Whether I want the acting to be a little cheesy to set the “B-movie” mood or if I want a really solid, legit performance, I’m often terrified it isn’t working. I made Keith take one scene for nearly an hour because I just couldn’t tell if it was too over the top or was sounding good. Even watching the footage at first I didn’t know – but as I started cutting the scene and watching it with score, I’ve realized with a good edit, you can really take a performance and make it shine, even with nonactors like my mom, myself, Keith, or whoever!
IFJ: With your company Flush Studios and the Patreon platform, you seem to have figured out how to engage and grow your audience in a vertically integrated way that gives you full control over production, distribution, and marketing. How has that experience been, and would you recommend it to other filmmakers?
JS: For me, I’ve been able to make enough money to fund my projects as I go, while living frugally and making movies extremely frugally. Some people have bigger stories to tell. Some people want their movies to be more mainstream – that’s great! I love a lot of mainstream stuff as well. But for me, I love being able to tell whatever story pops into my brain. No studio was going to fund my lil’ doggy monster movie. This was something I had to do for myself. If you’re a filmmaker who has a story to tell – you have to be honest with yourself and think about what the best way for this movie that you want to make is of getting it made. For me, it was DIY.
IFJ: When you take on so many aspects of production and post-production, it can sometimes be hard to maintain perspective and know when something is done. It’s possible to tweak the edit, color, sound, etc. forever, so how do you determine when one of your films is complete?
JS: I give myself deadlines generally. And I do continue to tweak it until its final release. Because I own it, I can do that. I like to try to get a cut done and then send it to some festivals to see if it’ll get in. If it does, I treat those festivals like test screenings. I listen to what people say, watch it with them, and then make changes after the festival for the final release.
The other thing is, I always have another idea brewing, so the sooner I can set this one free, the sooner I can start on the new one.
IFJ: What kind of equipment did you use for the production of Greywood’s Plot?
JS: I shot on a Sony a6300. A little tiny camera with really nice autofocus. Terrible battery life, but we found ways to make it work. I own my own lights, just a handful of inexpensive NewEgg LED lights… maybe cost a couple hundred dollars for 4 of them. We utilized a fog machine too quite often to give it that old “Wolfman” vibe at times. I have a Sennheiser shotgun mic and a few LAVs that I bought over the years. After working on The Good Exorcist and having so many audio issues due to the location, I decided to up my game. But I really loved that little Zoom F4 we rented on Rebel Without A Crew, so as soon as I got home I found one on sale and bought it.
IFJ: How large was your crew? Do you feel you had enough people to get what you needed?
JS: There were four of us total. We all were the crew and the cast. Daniel Degnan, Keith Radichel, Nathan Strauss, and myself. Obviously at times that can be a little rough when you have two people in a scene together and one other person filming and doing sound… it’s a lot… but we made it work and I’m very happy with how the movie turned out.
IFJ: What’s one piece of advice you wish you received before making The Good Exorcist or Greywood’s Plot?
JS: Fail. A lot. These movies are going to be someone’s favorite movie in the world, and someone else is going to vehemently hate the fact that you even had the idea to make them. Who care? You do you and just tell your story.
IFJ: What’s your distribution and marketing strategy for Greywood’s Plot?
JS: I’ve released Greywood’s Plot for digital download at joshstifter.com for $4.99. I wanted to try something different so if you purchase it for VOD on there, you get the ProRes version (the highest quality possible), a much smaller .mp4 file to easily watch wherever, and there’s also a bunch of bonus content.
Besides that, we’re taking it a step at a time. I’ll likely release it on Amazon and iTunes in July, with a Blu ray releasing soon after that. That’s the beautiful thing about 100% owning a movie… no one can stop me from trying things out!
IFJ: Have you ever directly dealt with the legal aspect of releasing one of your films?
JS: I did on The Good Exorcist a lot more, but Greywood’s was such a small crew that it’s much easier. All of the music was made by me or friends. All the actors are friends and family. All the sound design was mine. While I’m sure there will be legal hurdles – as there always are – keeping it a much smaller crew has made it far easier to get the movie out and hopefully people can enjoy it sooner!
IFJ: What’s next for you?
JS: I’m continuing my Patreon, showing behind the scenes and other projects as they get made, as well as one of the main homes to the Flush Studios Podcast, which will be coming back soon. I’m also starting on my third “Rebel Without a Crew” style feature called Scumbag. I’m hoping to have that one done by the end of the year to release right away in 2021.
I have a series of Father Gil comics that will hopefully be releasing in November.
On top of all that, I’m writing like crazy. Daniel and I are hoping to have a bunch of scripts completed by the end of the year to start seeing if we can find funding for!