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Zach Weintraub: Director, Bummer Summer

February 16, 2013

zach weintraub1Q: Tell us a little about the origins of BUMMER SUMMER, from writing to financing.

My writing process spanned a couple of years, and saw the film take on various incarnations. I started writing it as a very traditional screenplay about halfway through film school in New York because I had been warned that graduating without a feature script was the worst error that an aspiring director could commit. Just before my senior year I was getting exposed to a lot of the great new no-budget work that was coming out and was inspired to try my hand at it. So the screenplay changed a lot as I started writing it realistically according to my means. But I never even finished a complete draft. The dialogue was all so long-winded and mouthpiece-y, and all of the characters just sounded like me, so I scrapped it and wrote a detailed outline instead. That was what we shot from. I recruited friend/classmate Nandan Rao to move to Olympia, WA (my hometown) with me to shoot/co-produce the film. Because we were first-timers, we gave ourselves about six months to feel everything out before shooting anything. This time was also spent fundraising, which was a dismal failure. We threw events like a roller-disco, a garden pizza party, and an art show/raucous dance party (a bad combo for fragile ceramic pieces). Altogether, we milked less than a grand out of it all. Because the film coincided with my college graduation, I was able to finance it using gift money and some excess student loan money that I sneakily neglected to return to the loan company. It was an absurdly cheap movie, but I don’t think that’s apparent at all.

2Q: Two interesting casting choices:  Your lead had absolutely no acting experience, and you yourself took on a role even though you are also writer/director. What can you say about working with a first time actor, and also the experience with directing yourself?

The film’s casting process was really minimal. We tried to go about it the traditional way (placing ads, etc), but operating in such a small city it was fruitless and ultimately a waste of time. In the case of the lead, I was hanging out with an old friend one night and his fifteen year-old brother had a friend over named Mackinley. I must’ve talked to the kid for no more than five minutes before leaving. A couple of weeks later we were stressing out about casting a lead and I remembered him, so I tracked his number down and called him up cold. He was very confused. Aside from having no acting experience, he had no desire to act, period. For some reason or another he agreed to give it a try. To be honest, he was terrible at first. He would fumble his way through entire scenes with this stupid grin on his face. The key was the fact that we had months to work with him before shooting during which we were able to develop a bond and a mutual understanding in terms of the character. With all of the principal actors, getting on the same wavelength was key. As far as casting myself is concerned, it was a choice that I had considered since the film was first being written. Because all of the scenes were improvised, I figured that I would have more directorial control as an actor because I would be able to steer the dialogue in whichever direction I wanted on the spot. At the same time I was terrified to make my role official because I knew that if I were to give a bad performance, I wouldn’t be able to live with the fact that I’d ruined my own film. We tried briefly to find someone else, but it wasn’t working out and eventually I just bit the bullet and took on the role. It certainly wasn’t without its challenges, but I think it was the right decision and I would definitely do it again.

3Q: What was your best and/or worst experience while making BUMMER SUMMER?

Shooting the film was a very free-form thing, so a lot of times we’d be having a “best experience” that would just crumble and become terrible. I’ll cite a specific example. There’s one sequence later in the film in which the lead goes off alone and meets this strange older man and hangs out with him for the night. That was about as much detail as we had “scripted”. I had my friend Rob come out to play the role of the older guy because he’s got this wild charisma that I thought would work well. The night of the shoot, we debated all day about what exactly we would shoot. We had arranged to shoot in a bookstore, and that was all we knew. After they closed, we moved in and started setting up, still arguing back and forth and re-writing everything. It was a really scary thing betting the fate of the movie on some split-second, late-night decisions. What we eventually settled on was crazy. The bookstore scene would end on this heated shouting match, which we cast the soundman to take part in with Rob. When we rolled and called action, their performances were totally electric. It was amazing and unexpected. The continuation of the sequence got even weirder. We went out and shot a few continuous scenes that included a car chase and a dry ice bomb. When this sequence came up in the editing process, I hated it. I started to worry that the entire film was sunk just because of these rash, zany decisions we’d made. I talked it out with the editor and with friends who’d seen a cut of the movie, and I ended up just scrapping everything after the bookstore. In just about any other movie this would never fly, but thanks to the loose, disjointed style of the film it feels totally natural. I still get uncomfortable when the sequence plays, but other people seem to really like it. It’s somewhat baffling to me, but it’s a huge relief.

4Q: Festival audiences often have to make hard decisions about what to see, and the catalog descriptions sometimes run together. In your own words, why should people see your film?

One of the most important aspects of a good movie to me is tone. With Bummer Summer Nandan and I put a lot of thought and effort into developing a specific tone and maintaining consistency from start to finish. It was risky filmmaking because while the film’s events are totally traditional at their core, I think that what we did with it is a bit of an experiment. It’s a super interesting blend of one very distinct sort of content with another equally distinct, totally contrasting (yet strangely appropriate) visual style. And we were all so frighteningly inexperienced; I think it gives the film an exciting edge. We shot on the Canon 5D Mark II, which was particularly foolhardy because it had never been used to make a feature film before, but I’m so pleased with the result. I just saw Bummer Summer projected in a theater for the first time, and the movie is beautiful. I can say that without hesitation.

5Q: The current market for independent films is fractured, to put it lightly, and existing distribution models grow more ineffective with each passing moment. What are your hopes or plans for distribution?

I have no idea. The fact that the film is even going to play at Cinequest is still sort of unreal. I know next to nothing about the world of distribution and have never realistically expected it for this film. Instead, my partner Nandan and I have decided that what we’re really after for the time being is just whatever recognition/credibility we’ll need to secure financing for another one. Making money would be nice. Hell, just breaking even would be nice. But our ultimate goal is always going to be the opportunity to keep making more and more movies.

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