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Jeremy N. Inman: Director, SUPER HERO PARTY CLOWN

February 18, 2013

INMAN1Q: Tell us a little about the origins of SUPER HERO PARTY CLOWN, from concept to financing.

SHPC was born out of my desire to tell a comic book-inspired story on an indie budget. The content is ripe with potential for dynamic visual storytelling and is inherently dramatic. I knew that choosing SHPC as my first attempted feature would give me plenty of opportunities to display my range as a director both visually and emotionally.

I grew up reading comic books, so the conventions of the genre speak to me very clearly. Concepts like duality, sense of purpose, conflicts between responsibility and personal desire, and knowing what’s right or wrong are easy to manipulate and relate to in a comic book setting. I think everyone struggles to balance certain aspects of their life; in SHPC, main character Eugene must reconcile the two halves of his personality – one with a clear notion of his duty as a pretend superhero (his “Arachnid-Man” persona), and the other his willingness to give or do anything to be with Emily, his love.

The film started as a short somewhere in the vicinity of four years ago now. I had a clear plan to use the completed short to market my feature-length script (at the time it was already in the works) to Barnaby Dallas. Completing the short wound up not playing too big of a role in the SJSU film department’s ultimate decision to green light the feature, but it helped me shape the concept. The feature script made the rounds at a few festivals; it was a finalist at the CSU Media Arts Festival and it won second place at the Broadcast Education Association’s international screenplay competition. By then the script was vetted enough for Barnaby and Spartan Film Studios to want to produce, particularly since the bulk of the rewriting that would shape the shooting script happened in Barnaby’s screenwriting class (which I took for a second time to ensure that he would have to read the script).

The only remaining step was financing. The bulk of the budget was provided by my brother and business partner Wes Nelson, executive producer on SHPC. The rest I raised privately, with the second largest contribution coming from Bill Marshak, the editor of the Tri-City Voice Newspaper – a publication in my home town of Fremont that I used to write movie reviews for. Once we were a few weeks into production, the grandfather of one of our young actors (James Dean, who plays Walter) offered us some additional budget because he was impressed with the production and my treatment of James.

I guess the last big hole to come together was casting. I knew from the beginning that I wanted Shelby Barnes for Emily. We had worked together before and she played the role back when we did the short. Fan-favorite Garth was cast fairly early as well. Zach Sutherland and I came through the SJSU film program together and had agreed to work on each others’ features (he went on to direct Cheap Fun, which I produced – in the festival this year as a rough cut). Pretty early on, when discussing what his involvement would be, Zach requested to play Garth and it immediately clicked for me. The villain Todd took a few rounds of casting, but once Adam Sessa came in I knew it would be him. He had the depth I was looking for and a sincerity behind even his jerkiest lines. Probably the most pivotal is the fact that he looks like Superman – which is who Todd’s alter ego Captain Tremendous is modeled after. Thanks to Adam, Todd feels motivated rather than just being a jerk for the sake of being a jerk. Lastly was casting Eugene. I saw a lot of Eugenes in casting – a lot of GOOD Eugenes. But I couldn’t help but think that there was a quality I just wasn’t seeing.

Only a few weeks out from production it struck me to call someone who I hadn’t seen or heard from in four years. In high school, I saw Randy Blair in a school production of Brighton Beach Memoirs. Randy and I had a passing friendship, and I remember shaking his hand after his incredible performance and saying “I’m going to work with you some day.” So I looked him up on Facebook and found out he was in New York pursuing an acting career. I called him up and asked if he’d come home to read for an indie feature and he said sure. When Randy came and read with Zach, Shelby, Adam and the already-cast Cynthia Abrams (who plays shop owner Marcy) it clicked. I realized then what the quality was that had been missing. In the original script, Eugene is kind of a quirky, jokey Napoleon Dynamite lite. Randy read each line like a real person, and over a few days of reading with the other actors just breathed life into the character and readjusted my entire approach. Eugene wasn’t there to be funny or off beat, I would leave that to Garth – Eugene was the emotional core of the entire experience, and Randy embodied that completely.

2Q: You screened a preview of the film at last year’s Cinequest, and are now presenting it in its final form. How helpful was the input you received the last time around, and how much of an influence did it have on your final cut?

IN 2010 I test screened an earlier cut of SHPC at Cinequest. The process was extremely helpful. For one, it told me that the film, even in its earlier form, was capable of drawing a crowd of over 1,100 people. It was nice for the crew to get to watch the film in the California Theater with a crowd that size. It was really validating. More importantly, the screening provided invaluable data in a number of ways. For one, I sat in the middle of the audience, so I could feel when they would disengage. Mostly these moments were due to the nature of the rough cut (missing music, lack of sound design, etc) – but a few times it informed me as to lines to cut, moments to trim, or at least in one case, scenes to take out. I had our script supervisor sit with a stopwatch and record every major laugh, and I used the data to trim out lulls or to make sure that the audience didn’t laugh over important dialogue. Probably most effective were the questionnaires we got back from the audience. I asked the audience to rate the film and to provide helpful feedback and suggestions. Mostly people wanted more Garth. But a few pretty major issues were brought to light through this process, which did indeed help shape the final edit.

3Q: What was your best and/or worst experience while making SUPER HERO PARTY CLOWN?

It’s very hard to pick moments out of production. I spent about 18 hours a day shackled to Director of Photography Jake Humbert. Shackled is perhaps the wrong word. Jake  and I developed a close professional and personal relationship over the course of production. Each shooting day is 13 hours, after which we would wrap the crew. Jake and I would head back to the production office and draw storyboards for the next day for anywhere from 3 to 5 hours, often in the company of lead art man and set dresser Nick Cervantes – who would stand over our shoulders and look at the storyboards, then prepare any props or set dressing that were likely to be in frame the next day. In terms of best or worst, best was any time we got our day and worst was any time we didn’t (which was, thankfully, very few). We had drawn 430 storyboards for the film, and we wound up shooting 415, either canceling, simplifying, or combining shots down to that final number, so all in all we did pretty good.

The end of each day was a huge emotional release for me. Wrapping a scene and moving on, never to return to that location – is profound. That’s why it was so important for Jake and I to pre-plan the nights before: on an indie budget you don’t have every location available whenever you want, you’ve got to get what you need and move on. There’s nothing like successfully executing your day. There was a night outside a movie theater that an essential piece of equipment simply shut down. As a result, six hours into the day we had one shot out of 18 planned. By the end of the night we had 21 shots completed. Somewhere after lunch we found a second wind, figured out how to keep going and just flew.

Having a situation force you to compromise your original vision for a shot or a scene, and then coming up with a solution that either works the same or is better was pretty much an every day occurrence. We had storyboards for everything, and nine times out of ten we shot exactly what was on the boards, but there were plenty of times that we had to change things and wound up with something better. I learned not to fear compromise, but to embrace the craziness of coordinating 45 people day in and day out to achieve one goal.

I guess, in short, the best times were collaborating with the crew, time spent with the cast, having the legendary Ned Kopp on set all day every day to learn from (IMDB him), watching Zach improv Garth’s dialogue, seeing Randy generate the perfect emotion, nailing a shot. It’s much harder to come up with a notion of the “worst times,” which I guess is a good thing. Shooting Super Hero Party Clown has been the most fulfilling experience of my life so far. I was sleeping only about 3 hours a night, but I was never tired. It was always worth it to get back to set and have the crew that I had working as hard as they did.

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?

I think there’s a lot to find in SHPC. Like I mentioned above, it’s full of great opportunities for dynamic visual storytelling and drama. I think everyone can relate to Randy’s struggle – how do I balance the thing that I love with the person that I love? How do people reconcile the conflicting aspects of their life and still come out without compromising their ethics? In a lot of ways the movie is about insecurity. Eugene is a superhero, but he feels he needs to hide that from the girl he loves. Todd is, in many ways, strong and confident and yet he feels like he needs to pretend to be a hero to humiliate Eugene and impress Emily. Garth is a clown who wants nothing more than to step into Eugene’s shoes – the shoes that Eugene so fervently keeps hidden.

Wrapped around all of this is something as ridiculous as spandex. You wind up with something all at once funny, touching, poignant and human. At its core is a very real friendship between Eugene and Garth, a need for heroes in any form, and a story about how one young man reconciles the two halves of his life that have forced him to hide behind a mask. Add in a healthy dose of comic book reference and action, and you get a true to life indie blockbuster, where the battles between good and evil play out across a series of backyard birthday parties.

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?

Currently there is at least one distributor who is interested in the film and has made us an offer. The plan would be a focus on DVD and VOD release as opposed to any kind of theatrical run. There might possibly be opportunities for it to flourish on television as well. The film is out for consideration at a host of other festivals, including Comic Con’s indie film festival, where I suspect it will find an audience. The plan for me is to get it in front of as many people as possible, because this really isn’t a movie for comic book people, or for kids, or for anyone exclusively. It’s a movie that anyone can enjoy.

From → Interviews

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