Director Robert Siegel on Big Fan
Triumphs and Trip-ups of a First Time Director
When it premiered at Sundance a lot of people expected it to be a comedy because Pat [Oswald] is a comedian and I have a comedy background as the editor of The Onion for 10 years. I think people expected it to be a comedy and it is a pretty dark drama. It has some funny stuff in it but at heart it is a drama.
Coming from a comedy background how did you end up writing these dark dramatic screenplays?
I tried to write comedy scripts first. I assumed when I started writing screenplays that I should write comedy because I have that background. I wrote four or five comedies that were in a Judd Apatow-style. They just weren’t that good. I still don’t really know what is wrong with those scripts or why they didn’t work. They came out very derivative, like an amateur attempt at writing a Judd Apatow comedy, rather than being something good and original.
When I came up with the idea of the obsessive sports fan it just clicked and I felt like I had found my voice in this medium. Also, The Onion definitely has a dark side and comedians in general have a dark side so crossing over from comedy to drama is not that much of a stretch. I think moving from drama to comedy is much more unusual.
What was the first day on set like as a true first time director?
At first I felt like I was faking it. As time went by I learned. Before we shot I read Ã¢Â€Â˜Filmmaking for Dummies’ just to find out things like what a key grip does and the other terminology so I wouldn’t look like a total idiot. But honestly that’s all I did. I did surround myself with the right people and trusted them a lot. There are some directors that know all the aspects about what everyone does and then there are other directors that just rely on the crew to do their jobs and don’t need to know how it gets done.
Was your main objective then to work with the actors and let DP Michael Simmonds handle shooting it?
I had clear idea of how I wanted each scene to look and feel. I would tell Michael that I wanted one scene to be intimate, or another to be intense, and then mostly leave it to him to interpret and make it happen visually. Then I would worry about working with the actors.
Had you and Michael discussed having a certain look to the film in terms of other films that are out there?
I am a huge Scorsese fan so I guess in my mind I was hoping to have an early-Scorsese look, Mean Streets or Taxi Driver. Not so stylized as Taxi Driver but sort of that 1970s, documentary style. The budget, of course, helped determine that. We knew going in that there weren’t going to be crane shots, or even dolly shots. It was pretty simple: handheld or tripod.
Was there any difficulty as a director interpretting your own script?
Those two things weren’t really at odds. I knew what I wanted. It was nice to be able to actually execute it rather than having someone else interpret it. Being a producer and a director was much more of a problem. One side of me was saying Ã¢Â€Â˜I have to get this shot’ while the producer side was telling me Ã¢Â€Â˜We have to move on or we’re going to lose the day and cost money.’ The constantly weighing the practical and budgetary considerations against the artistic, creative decisions was an awkward position to be in.
I was not in a position to cave in to the director side of me at every turn. I did pick my battles. There were spots where if I needed to keep the crew an hour overtime I did it, but for the most part I had to let things go out of necessity. Otherwise I would have never been able to complete the movie at all.
Did you have a line producer or assistant director helping you with these decisions and keeping you on schedule?
I had a great assistant director [Yori Tondrowski]. He was probably the most experienced person on set. The first two or three days of the shoot we didn’t have an assistant director so we didn’t really have anyone running things. There were a lot of crew positions that we did not have. There was no script supervisor. After three days it dawned on me that we really needed an assistant director. Before that there was no one even calling out the time to go to lunch. I was sort of doing that but I was distracted with a hundred other things.
Most of the people on the set were fairly experienced. Some were students. Most of them it was their first time being the head of their departments. I got a lot of the crew from The Wrestler. When I was on set of The Wrestler I went around to all the departments and asked them if they could recommend someone to me that was willing to work for cheap.
Looking back, what were the key crew people to have when shooting a low-budget feature?
Cinematographer number one, then assistant director and editor. The editor [Joshua Trank] was a friend of mine. He was my on set DIT. He’d get the cards from the Red camera and download it to his computer on set. Since he was also going to be editing it, having him on set managing the files was helpful because he knew where everything was located.
I’ve heard horror stories from independent films that didn’t have a script supervisor. Did you run into any problems?
It was definitely a mistake not to have a script supervisor. There was one scene where the main character is supposed to have a big bruise on his eye. When we got to the editing room we realized that somehow no one noticed that we didn’t give him a bruise. We had to do a fairly expensive digital bruise. The cost of adding that bruise digitally was much more than the cost of hiring a script supervisor for the entire shoot. Then there was another scene where for half the scene the main character is wearing a jacket and then for some of the really good takes he doesn’t have his jacket on, so we just couldn’t use that footage. Mistakes like that probably happen on movies of all sizes but it definitely hurt.
Why the Red camera?
I knew I wanted to shoot digital. As a first-time filmmaker I wanted to be free to make mistakes, be loose in shooting and not worry about wasting film and money. I wanted the freedom to roll with takes and not be anxious about running out of film.
I’m not obsessive about the technology, I just wanted a camera that would give me some flexibility shooting and wouldn’t look cheap. What I’d seen of the Red footage it was about as close to film as I’ve seen from a digital camera. DP Michael Simmonds endorsed the Red camera so that was good enough for me.
Looking back on it what are some of the things you learned about directing or mistakes you made?
I was pretty happy with the way it turned out, which surprised me. Going in I expected I would have been disappointed. I learned I really liked directing and it is a lot easier than writing. To interpret a script, in this one experience, is not nearly as hard as writing it. There’s nothing more daunting than a blank page.