Despite the name of our website, there are many things to be learned in film school, and director Addison Mehr chose an especially interesting project for his NYU thesis film. Fort Apache is the story of small town escape, adapted from a popular short story by Alan Heathcock. Click through to watch the film and get Addison's perspective on film school, reaching out to an established author, casting and finding stories that resonate.
First, check out the trailer:
Video is no longer available: vimeo.com/39127521
If that piqued your interest, check out the full 15 minute film:
"Having a community of people around you who will support you and help you through crazy, absurd things is more important than anything else."
NFS: How did you go about choosing this project for your thesis film?
Addison: It was based on a short story that I read in Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope magazine. I got in touch with the author Alan Heathcock and it turned out he was a big movie fan. I grew up in rural small town America, so I wanted to do a story set in small town America, and to me this story resonated. When I got in touch with Alan we found we had a lot of similar visual references and film references for how we pictured the story, like Ivan's Childhood and Rumble Fish.
NFS: How did you reach out to the author of the story? Was it just a cold call?
Addison: A lot of people go through film school with the ideology of writer/director, that you have to write and direct your own thing. But there are a lot of great American independent authors out there too. Alan Heathcock isn't some huge celebrity, but he's now a somewhat known independent author. For an independent filmmaker to get in touch with an independent author, more likely than not they're going to be interested in it.
Alan was very supportive of the project from the get-go. It allowed me to take freedom in visualizing the story with the fact that I knew I had a back-bone plot and structure to fall back on. The story itself is really well written. I asked for his permission and then I wrote the script in the thesis workshop. So, we wrote the script and he gave us the freedom to do that.
As far as the adaptation itself, I asked permission from him first before writing anything, and then I went ahead in the thesis class workshop. He had approval over the final screenplay, but we wrote the script and he gave us the liberty.
NFS: What do you think is the most important thing that you've learned in film school so far that allowed this project to happen?
Addison: It's not as much about the classes or the coursework or the equipment as it is about finding a solid group of people. Being surrounded by passionate hardworking people who you know you can call and say, "We need to erect a giant set out of burnt lumber." Many of the people on my crew were actually directors. Our production designer Auriel Rudnick was actually a director, but understood the vision and got on board with it. Having a community of people around you who will support you and help you through crazy, absurd things is more important than anything else.
The biggest challenge in the script was the burnt down bowling alley. Everyone said, "No, you can't do that. How can you do that?" We had no money, so we pulled parts from burned down barns and houses around the area and eventually built this frankenstein structure in the middle of a field.
It's about the relationships you make and you learn very quickly who you can trust and who will put in 12-hour, 18-hour or 20-hour days and will work their ass off to bring a project to life. Those are the kind of people you need to keep and cherish and respect for the work they do.
"We reached out to casting directors to come on board as executive producers."
NFS: For people rolling their eyes at a student filmmaker raising money on Kickstarter, why did you choose to raise funds that way and why was it critical in the film's creation?
Addison: This wasn't a student filmmaker bugging you about his personal project, it's a story that people know and love. It became much more about creating a community around adapting it. Starting with something with a fan-base around it was hugely important in raising the funds and also pre-production.
Addison: The most important thing I learned about casting was to not be shy. We reached out to casting directors to come on board to help as executive producers. Rita Powers who did Half Nelson came on. Sammy Burch, who did stuff on The Hunger Games came on and we had Megan Lewis who did Beasts of the Southern Wild. So we had 3 very experienced southern casting directors who were willing to help us out. So trying to reach out to people who can guide you and advise you and give you access to their casting directories can be extremely helpful.
Addison: I'm a big proponent of shooting your own hood, shooting in a place you know and love. I could relate the story to the small streets I live on. The film takes place right where I live. It adds a personal touch when you're shooting -- these railroad tracks are the ones I actually used to walk on with my brother.
NFS: I've been really interested in trailer editing recently. What decisions went into making yours? It's really effective.
Addison: We did it all sonically first. My editor and I do music videos together, so we decided to do a music edit and then cut the images to it. Since it was voiceover-centric, I worked originally with my sound designer to pick a song that had the right energy and then we played with the rhythm of the voiceover. Instead of period music we went for the electronic ambient music.
NFS: How are you using this film to propel yourself forward?
Addison: For me, it's just about creating projects that are important to you and resonate with you personally out of your experience of reality. For me, I love small town USA, so I just wanna create stories that express feelings of escape or what it's like to be a teenager in America now. I just want to get Fort Apache out there and hope people share in the feelings as well. In the meantime, I'm doing music videos, producing shorts, and I'm working on adapting two different books right now. One is a documentary and one is a Gummo-esque film set in the swamps of south Florida, so we'll see.
(with commentary from Addison Mehr and DP Marc Katz)
Camera - ARRI ALEXA
Addison: The range and latitude on this camera is incredible. It allowed for us to use minimal lighting on the night exteriors and with the night-time driving scene, DP Marc Katz and I used just moonlight.
Katz: The main reason we needed the ALEXA was because of its reliability. We were shooting in a faraway town with no nearby rental houses. Weather conditions were not ideal and often we found ourselves dealing with rain and cold. We needed a camera that would be there for us, not bug out, and not require extra attention. Also, because of all the nighttime shooting, the latitude really helped us out. I'm someone who likes to get away with as little lighting as possible, and it really lends itself to that well.
Lens - Cooke S4
Very cinematic. We liked the sharp look and depth the Cookes offered. We also loved the kind of dreamy way the S4 iris would bokeh with the distant street lamps or in the reflections of the broken glass. Also, because the film is so much about "film" and the experience of movies, we decided to shoot the film in the anamorphic aspect ratio which we felt was not only more cinematic, but also reflective of Walt's experience of reality and his inability to separate movies from reality as the story reaches its cinematic fever pitch.
Katz: The Cooke s4's are some of my favorite lenses. They have a very intimate quality to them without sacrificing sharpness or quality. They're also very reliable.
Katz: Even though we were aiming to give the film a grand look, we tried to keep lighting simple. I always just try to use available light whenever possible. Since the majority of the film takes place at night, there is a degree of lighting and style required. We chose to give our nighttime an emphasized moonlight. We saw the moon as a thematic sort of motif and so it made sense to use it as a lighting source. We also used a lot of period drawings from the illustrator Martin Lewis as reference.
Katz: Most of the film is handheld. Since we wanted to show the world through Walt's perspective, we chose to use an Easyrig. This allowed us to get handheld shots from his height. We also used a Fisher dolly that allowed for some of the more cinematic gestures. I think my director's viewfinder was pretty key in keeping our pace up and being able to sign off on shots before the camera was moved. Also ARRI's online calculator was pretty useful in being able to place our larger units outside at night. With a small crew, you can't change your mind about light placement too much when your dealing with great distances. I even think there's an app for that now!
What do you think of Addison's approach to Fort Apache? Join the discussion in the comments below.