Firmament Films’ Kris Schulz on 48 Hour’s craziness and not trying to be funny

As part of a limited interview series in the coming weeks, will yak it up with a handful of Wisconsin filmmakers from Madison’s 2013 48 Hour Film Festival.

Technically speaking, Firmament Films is based out of Southern Wisconsin, even though several members of the production house no longer reside in the same state. Firmament’s connections actually extend well outside of the company’s tight-knit operations, so it’s proof positive of the studio’s organization that several actors can fly in from Los Angeles while a partnering effects studio simultaneously renders SFX shots. (That actually happened.)

In this year’s 48 Hour Film Festival, Firmament took home six awards for “The Noize.” Kris Schulz, the film’s co-writer and -director, was gracious enough to talk to me about Firmament’s creative process, making a movie in 48 hours, and the art of not trying too hard to be funny.

LakeFrontRow: Let’s get the important stuff out of the way first: Can $10,000 make me good looking?

Kris Schulz: Well, to the right person, $10,000 can make anyone good looking. I mean, have you seen reality TV lately? I think people have been found good looking for much, much less.

What’s the story behind Firmament Films?

It actually started with a 48 [Hour film]. [Producer] Chris Moehr and a few others had previously done a 48 together, but it really started when most of the team was brought together for the “Dangerous Summers” 48. The team had a lot of fun and thought they had something good going, so they decided to make more movies together.

What came before Firmament started in 2010? Were any of you involved in other production houses?

Some of us, yes. I started with Firmament with “The Seven Year Wish” — I had done some PA work with the group prior to that on other films, but nothing that we released, though I might be misremembering. Chris and T.C. De Witt have been part of it from the beginning. T.C. was already involved in extra work, short films with friends, theater, YouTube films and even played a key role in a kung fu movie (Sacrifice 2: Broken Dreams). Chris made some films as well, but mostly for high schools and weddings.

What’s the biggest challenge for an independent production house like Firmament?

Time, I would say. I would love to be working on films all the time, but I still need to work my paying job. As much as I think my fiancée loves me, I don’t think she’d be happy with me gone every weekend and weeknight working on films. We are all working for free. Everyone wants to make a movie until they realize they have to be there.

There’s a Wisconsin Public TV interview with T.C. DeWitt and Chris Moehr. At some point, T.C. says he hopes to never draw “comedy” for his 48 Hour genre. He’s joking right?

So here’s something we learned and talk about. Comedy, as a stand alone genre, is hard. Setting a goal to make people laugh isn’t easy – not everyone has the same sense of humor. We like to have the additional parameters of a more narrowed genre. That’s not to say what we make won’t be funny, or that we won’t add jokes we laugh at ourselves. We do, at least for the 48s. “Filling In” is a Fantasy, “The Noize” is a Mistaken Identity and “Seven Year Wish” is in the Anniversary/Birthday genre (whatever that means). You write a great story within a genre and the jokes seem to happen naturally.

Why are you guys so hilarious?

Well, we don’t try too hard to be funny. It’s when you try too hard that comedy seems desperate, if that makes sense. We do have some experience with comedy, though. My mom thinks I’m funny. T.C. has done a lot of stand up out in LA. I think T.C. and I work great together and can really build off each other’s jokes. It’s hard to look at any of the movies we’ve written and point to a joke and say “Oh, that’s T.C.’s joke” or “I wrote that one.” Maybe it’s one of those fluky natural things. I’m his Evan Goldberg; he’s my Seth Rogen.

Chris and T.C. also talked about handing off 48 Hour footage to the editor before Saturday even rolls around. They mention placing a great amount of trust on the DP’s shot blocking and lighting; there’s a composer working independent of everyone else, etc. I’m extrapolating here, but it seems like there’s a well-oiled apparatus of writing, shooting and editing in Firmament, at least for the 48 Hour Film Project. Are operations always this efficient?

We have the advantage of being a fairly large, extremely talented team, especially for the 48s. Chris does a great job of pulling all the pieces together. He does a ton of planning so when the weekend rolls around, we can run as efficiently as possible. We have a great editor in Chad Halvorsen, an excellent sound guy in Cory Kaseman, our DP, special effects, everyone all the way down to our brave PAs — just a great team overall. As long as everyone shows up, it runs very smoothly. It’s the hard work put in by everyone that has lead to the success we’ve had. And every experience we have making a film, we learn from our group efforts. We learn what will make things go more efficiently the next time.

So I’m a little obsessed with “The Noize.” Without secreting too many of your creative juices, where did the idea come from?

T.C. and I start the writing process for the 48 as soon as we get the required elements. We start brainstorming stories, and we come up with three or four solid ideas. And here’s a funny thing about “The Noize”: When T.C. and I pitched it to the producer and DP, it was our third favorite pitch. We had a few other ideas that we liked more… much more, but the producer and DP weren’t feeling them. Once we got the green light for “The Noize,” we think “Okay, where do we start? Where do we end up?” The ideas generally come from T.C. and I just throwing concepts out to each other, seeing what makes the other one laugh or at least give pause. We try to craft a logical story with a complete arc. The bits and gags and characters come in that process, and even better, the real gems come once the script is in our cast’s hands. Some of the best moments in “The Noize” came from the actors really exploring their characters. Moments like Wildman’s “Yeah. Dance.” for example, came from Candace [Ostler] and Chad riffing.

How was co-writing and -directing? I imagine it helped with productivity in such a cramped time period.

T.C. was actually slated to direct this film, and I was supposed to be the head writer, however we talked and decided to take a more collaborative approach. Plus, he was going to be a major character in the film, so it made more sense that I had a bigger role in directing. It really does help keep things productive. We had a lot of different parts going with this film, so it made a ton of sense to split those duties. It really helped that, since we both had a hand in writing, we were totally on the same page when it came to characters, tone and to how we saw the final film.

What’s it like doing a 48 Hour Film? Insane? Fun? Delirious?

48s are great! Insane, yes. Fun, yes. Delirious, yes, especially Sunday afternoons. I love the fact that we can create something so quick and fun, and we don’t have time to doubt ourselves or change our minds on things. We have to make decisions and stick to them. There is no time for messing around.

In one of the post-screening Q&As at Sundance, someone mentioned that the sleep deprivation gets to a point where you’re laughing hysterically as you race to put together the final cut. Can you confirm or deny?

I can confirm that we had to cut some things that were hilarious. At least they seemed that way… at the time. I think in the past few years, people either get overly giddy or just laughy. There don’t seem to be any other emotions until there are two hours left in the competition. Then someone gets yelly.

Backflip Films did great graphics and effects work for you guys. I thought their touches really upped the film’s production value immensely. How did that relationship begin?

T.C. actually went to school with one of Backflip’s members, Ryan Freng, who found our kickstarter campaign. Ryan then reached out to us to rekindle his connection with T.C.. Very sweet story, actually.

You also have a podcast, The Rewatchmen, where you discuss movies and the latest cinematical happenings. What’s a “re-review?”

So remember those movies that you loved as a kid? Or the movies you loved 15 years ago? Or those movies you completely hated? The Rewatchmen re-watches those same movies and gives them a new review. It started as just an excuse for T.C. and [co-host] Ben To to get together and babble about movies. They did it so regularly though, they decided to put a microphone in front of themselves, and it’s been a nice little success. They’ve found some of their fondly-remembered childhood films aren’t actually all that good anymore, and some of the films they’ve held a grudge against aren’t as bad. And with guests on from time to time, they’ve had some pretty good debates and discussions. Its a fun podcast to be part of, although I am not a regular… yet.

How much will T.C.’s autograph on this commemorative plate set me back?

Good question. Tell you what, I will get one from him for me and sell it on eBay. That should give you a good idea on the price, right?

Judging from your back catalogue, you guys are always keeping busy. What’s next for Firmament?

We have a few things. One, and what we are most excited about, is our first full length feature film, an adaptation of T.C.’s stage musical, The Princess Knight. We actually completed a successful Kickstarter campaign for it, so we are very active with this project. You can learn all about it and follow its progress on our website. Oh, and yes, you will notice right away it involves puppets. We’ve taken the stage musical, re-imagined it for the screen, and, as T.C. puts it, gone “full Muppet.” We also have a few shorts in post-production. I wrote and directed another film that should be out soon, “The Roxy Incident.” It’s more in the film noir genre, a murder mystery of sorts, so very different from our 48s. Julia Smith, who acts and is 1st AD on many of our films, also has a yoga instructional film coming out soon. It’s just our way of expanding what we do. We have another 48 Hour Film Project that T.C., Chad and Candace (another member of Firmament as well as a great actress and artist) created for the L.A. festival called “After April.” The team is always looking to push forward, find the next challenge, and continue to grow as a production team, so definitely expect more films and projects.