Drywater Productions’ Stephen Pickering on the family business and not wasting an actor’s time

Drywater Productions' Stephen Pickering on the set of his newest 48 Hour Film, "Take It From Me" (Photo courtesy of Stephen Pickering)

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

Back in our July preview of Madison’s 48 Hour Film Festival, I incorrectly named Drywater Productions as newcomers to the weekend-long short film competition. Not only had Drywater been submitting entries for years, but the video production company had tons of commercial experience in its portfolio already.

In the second installment of our “48 Hour Filmmaker” series, director and Drywater co-founder Stephen Pickering discusses his team’s creative process on their latest 48 Hour entry, “Take It From Me,” which took home this year’s award for Best Music Composition. Stephen also shares insights on directing his actors and trusting composers to write music for an unfinished production. Most importantly, he sets me straight on his history with 48 Hour Film Projects.

LakeFrontRow: As you mentioned in a previous email, “Tripping With the Planketts” wasn’t actually your first entry — I got that one wrong. What’s your “authorized” history with 48 Hour Film Projects?

Stephen Pickering: A couple years after getting out of Vancouver Film School in British Columbia, I was checking out Craigslist posts for video production and stumbled upon an international film competition making its debut in Madison. The sign up deadline was just a day or two away so I quickly called a few friends and we decided to go for it. It was 2007, and I believe it was the [48 Hour’s] first year in Madison. Our film was “Housecall” and it’s still one of my favorites. Unfortunately, we turned it in 15 minutes late. The following year, we entered “Kingdom of Ends,” which won Best Use of Character and Best Actor. In 2009, “Unknown Spectre” won Best Film, Best Use of Genre, Best Graphics, Best Sound Design, and Best Use of Character. In 2010, “Tymex” won Best Writing. After taking a break in 2011, we created “Tripping With The Planketts.” This year’s entry, “Take it From Me won Best Music Composition.

Was Drywater Productions always behind the scenes in your entries, regardless of your team name in any given year?

Drywater Productions has been behind all of these projects, though it wasn’t until 2010 when we officially named our 48 Hour team “Drywater Productions.” My wife [Cameron Pickering] and I started our production company by doing wedding videography, so we already had all the camera, sound, and lighting gear. With my directing and cinematography background, I direct and light, while my wife has done the editing on all of our films with the exception of “Housecall” and “Tripping With The Planketts.”  Of course, it was the collective efforts of the actors and talent we’ve had the privilege of working with over the years that has really made this experience awesome.

Your website says Drywater’s been telling “stories” for seven years. How many of those years included narrative shorts?

All seven and then some. I fell in love with narrative shorts when I was a kid and created my first short about 10 years ago. At that time, my friends and I called our “company” Drywater Studios for whatever reason, and the name Drywater has stuck ever since. My wife and I bought our first professional camera with our wedding money and officially started Drywater Productions as a real business. Narrative shorts have always been passion projects that consume time and money, but we hope things will change with our Kickstarter.

Do you find shooting commercials and TV spots informs what you do in a short film? Or maybe vice versa?

Our background is in short filmmaking which, interestingly enough, has crept its way into nearly everything we write including 30 second spots selling a product or service. Even an advertisement should have some kind of story for the audience to relate to.

I’ve noticed your two most recent 48 Hour films, “Take It From Me” and “Tripping With The Planketts,” have tremendous chemistry between leads.

I’m happy you picked up on that! Very little of the chemistry is written in the script. Sometimes we’ll leave in a few words, but I like to keep the script as non-descriptive as possible. I need to trust my actors to make the character their own. In turn, they need to trust me as the director to give them direction and to know my characters enough to lead them. I need to know my characters enough to say, “You know, I think we’re getting away from the heart of the character. Let’s go back and work on this some more.” In film school, we did an exercise in which we blacked out all descriptions of characters, emotions, etc. Basically, we were left with dialogue. This forced us to know our characters and in turn be able to relay our understanding of the character to our actors. Who are they? Why are they there? What’s their past? Their future dreams? Of course, having talented actors makes the job easier.

In “Take It From Me,” Jeremy Heesen has a great naturalism and Jesica Altmann is strong without falling into the “manic pixie dream girl” cliché. How much of that was in the script?

With Jeremy and Jesica, we needed to develop their relationship on screen in a matter of seven minutes. We wanted Jesica to be sweet and endearing even though she’s a kleptomaniac, something the audience knows is wrong and so do the characters. We wanted Jeremy to wonder why he found her interesting and not just annoying. Cameron worked with Jesica one-on-one a little which made a big difference in their final chemistry. Cameron helped with the script so she had a vision for Jesica’s character which I rightly trusted.

There are long pauses between certain lines and even wordless sequences where Jeremy’s thinking, debating, struggling all by himself. Would you say you placed a lot of trust in Jeremy and Jesica pulling off these dramatic moments?

I always try to do some of the dialogue shots first. This way I can give my actors direction as well as allow them to use my guidance to develop the characters themselves. I try to give a lot of backstory for non-dialogue scenes. When Jeremy was contemplating [relapsing in his alcohol addiction] the direction I gave was “It’s not a matter of if you drink it but what will happen when you do drink it.” This gave him the opportunity to think about the consequences, the worthlessness, and the helplessness he felt, knowing he wasn’t strong enough on his own. It’s especially rewarding when they deliver something unexpected like tears, which was not in the script.

Unemployment obviously links both of your characters but part of what I appreciated in “Take It From Me” is how it approaches their issues with honesty. Sometimes you can’t patch up a problem with an “after school special” message. Did this reverence for, let’s call them “human” characters stem from Drywater drawing the “drama” genre this year?

I’ve only made one drama, my thesis from film school, “My Prison Called Life.” There’s the risk of overdoing the drama. We may have tip-toed over that edge this year, but I think it was worth it. Because [we drew] the “drama” genre, we really wanted the characters to be simple, relatable, human. Everyone can relate to job loss even if we haven’t lost a job ourselves, and most of us can relate to alcoholism, even if it is from a distance. We had one crew member who was very politely adamant that the audience couldn’t form an emotional attachment to a struggling alcoholic in such a short amount of time. I gambled for the audience to like Jeremy and cheer for him, in spite of his failures.

“Take it From Me” suggests a romance between the two, but you don’t lay it on thick with say, a final smooch as the violins swell in the background. You almost refute that expectation in one particular scene. Did you go into this looking to avoid those kinds of storytelling mechanics? Is this even a romance?

We specifically wrote it to avoid a blatant romance. The ending scene could have gone so many ways, but because we were fitting so much into seven minutes, we didn’t want to overdo it. From the start of the script, we wanted them to have a clear attraction to each other, both physical and emotional since they have relatable problems, but at the same time not have a clear romantic attraction. The ending line, “You want to get something to eat?” without a kiss or her even stepping foot in his house implies a friendship, but we specifically chose a song about being “my valentine.” It allows the audience to decide.

I also have to mention that excellent opening sequence. Was some combo of stop-motion/still photography involved? And was it as difficult to shoot and cut as I’m imagining it?

Cameron had this idea while we were writing the script. We went through a few different ideas of how much to try to fit in but ultimately decided on just a few scenes. Aaron Williams, who does a lot of special effects work, threw together a [demo] clip with our crew, and we loved it. We rearranged our house to set up the party scenes, and Aaron used a long exposure to blur background characters. In the office scenes, we essentially did stop motion by snapping photos as we walked backwards. It was difficult to get the timing right because we weren’t able to drop [the opening sequence] into our main timeline and line everything up with the music until very late on Sunday.

Judging from your last two 48 films at least, you don’t repeat a lot of the same actors. How do you go about casting?

You’ll see overlap if you watch all of our films, but we try to work with new talent as much as possible for future projects. We’ve been blessed with great connections to our local theater companies since Cameron is an actor in a local theater company and my father-in-law is a theater director. One of the big things we work hard on is to never do a project half-heartedly. We want actors to look at our previous work and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if they dedicate a weekend or however long to this Stephen Pickering guy, they won’t regret it. Not all of our projects are award-winning but we hope to never have anyone say “That was a waste of my time.”

Yuri Rashkin and Teresa Nguyen play with a lot of different instrumentation in “Take It From Me,” and I would argue that along with being very catchy, Corinne Lyke’s piano helps set that darkly playful tone in “Tripping.” Where do you find these talented people? What’s that collaborative process like in making a 48 film, working with musicians who may not have even seen the finished product?

The collaborative process is always exciting! While I know what I like and what I don’t like, I can’t always explain why, but Cameron can usually decipher this and give the musicians direction. That is, when direction is needed. We’ve had the privilege of working with several composers, so we know their strong points and when possible, we choose them based on what we’re going for. 48 Hour Films are unique in that we don’t know what we want until we draw our genre, and even then it’s difficult until we know the story. We’ve worked with Rachel Hsiao [R.L. Wolf], Corinne Lyke, and most recently, Yuri Rashkin and Teresa Nguyen. In each case, we’ve given them the genre and they immediately went to work without any story. Once we have an idea, we call the composer and describe the style we envision and send them the script. Cameron will usually get some sample pieces throughout the weekend and let me have a listen as I stop into the edit room to check out the cut. Most often however, we’re relying on the skill of the composer, trusting them to do what they’re good at. It’s a really cool experience to replace temp music with a final piece and watch the whole film come to life.

Apart from narrative shorts, is it safe to say Drywater’s portfolio is all over the place? You’ve done commercial spots for Woodmans, 3M, even started a charity for Dancing with the Stars.

I think “diverse” sounds better, but we really enjoy the skill sets and challenges that come with different projects. We love using humor where appropriate but we try to not get stuck just being funny. We’ve found commercial competitions to be financially worthwhile, but more importantly, they’re a great avenue to try new things and keep our creativity flowing. We don’t have as much free time as we would like for charity work, but each year we do have a few pro bono projects we put our heart into, and it’s hugely rewarding to help local non-profits.

How else are you involved with film?

We had the opportunity to teach a private film class last year and have since taught additional mini-classes and several workshops in the community. We’re in the planning phase of this year’s student film workshops in Beloit, in partnership with the Beloit International Film Festival. Teaching young people the fundamentals of filmmaking is so rewarding.

Anything we can look forward to in the future?

Hopefully a lot! We currently have a Kickstarter project running through September 9th for our short film, “Kite,” which is a story of a young boy and the adventure he has when he’s taken into the sky. It’s a special effects-heavy film with no dialogue but visually and musically driven. It’s a passion project we’ve had on our list for over seven years. If we can raise the funding, we’ll begin filming this fall! We hope to keep doing shorts, but our ultimate goal is feature filmmaking. We have two scripts we’re itching to get off the ground, it’s just a matter of time and financing. We have three children under the age of five which slows down our big dreams just a bit. But we’ll get there!