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"Raising a Little Hell ": Reel Film Reviews interviews Robin Garrels

The last thing I expect after writing a savagely negative review is to receive an e-mail from the director thanking me for writing it. But that's precisely what Robin Garrels - co-director of Buzz Saw - did after reading my review of the film, despite the fact that I had virtually nothing kind to say about his efforts. I was even more surprised when Garrels agreed to participate in an interview via e-mail.

As one might expect, the filming of Buzz Saw was fraught with complications. Read on for the whole story.

Buzz Saw is available now from Sub Rosa Studios, while my review of the film can be found here.

REEL FILM REVIEWS: Tell me about your background.  Have you always been interested in film? 

ROBIN GARRELS: I’ve always been interested in dreams, which for me are hugely cinematic. I started writing (or rather, my dad started writing for me) my dreams in a notebook when I was four. One of them – at age seven - specifically said in the heading “like a movie” and was about elephants turning into Indians after “four years of being dead.” Whew. I figured out that I wanted to write when I was 12, after making a conscious decision not to chase the ice cream truck, then waxing philosophical about it on the back porch in late August. I was editor for our high school lit magazine, majored in English in college, then got a playwriting internship in L.A. at a theatre company for one year - which is what led me to start a theatre company upon returning to St. Louis, where I consequently met Eric Stanze.  So making movies was never the intent, and those I’ve made have been learning experiences more than anything, but now I’m hooked, and humbly wish to get better at it!

In addition to co-directing Buzz Saw, you also co-wrote it with David Burnett.  What was that process like - going from an idea to a fully-fleshed out, complete screenplay?

Well, we’re married now, if that’s any indication of how much love/hate went into it!  Ha!  Really though, it was difficult being “co-chef,” but because I’m not the most realistically visual of people, and David is, it was great to work together on it.  I probably came up with more of the plot devices, but it was honed quite a bit by him to make it realistically possible to shoot on no budget.

Where did the idea to co-direct come from?  Any conflicts there?

Well, because I have a full time job, have a theatre company, and don’t have a reserve of cash around, co-directing just made sense to me, especially considering my own lack of experience, doubled with not having the best visuo-spatial skills!  I think that Buzz Saw took twice as long as it would have if only one person were in charge, due to the constant need to diplomatically work out conflicting vision, but overall, I couldn’t be happier that we did it this way.  I’ve only ever co-directed (movies) (with John Specht – Last House on Hell Street, and China White Serpentine with Eric Stanze), but now feel (just) confident enough to take a stab at directing on my own…next time.

With the script finished, how were you able to secure financing?

Well, we didn’t have any financing.  I had a credit card, so at any given time we had access to about $1500.  Over the 2 years from start to finish, that it took to work on it, we spent a whopping $5000.  We didn’t even own a computer when we started writing, so we typed on an old early 90’s word processor that David had in college!

What was the shoot like?  Any major hurdles?

One skill I’m proud of is being an obsessive-compulsive planner.  Makes self-producing a “must.”  So the shoot went pretty much exactly as I thought it would, which was nice.  We were lucky in a lot of ways, we always planned extra days for inclement weather (and unfortunately had to use them all, much to the actors’ dismay!), and we were pretty right on about how long each shooting day would be, within an hour or so (except the dreaded treehouse shoot, which lasted until 3 AM!!! But that was very early on…)  The most major hurdle was money.  Like, having none.  Of course we knew that going into it, but when you have no budget and little to no experience, there’s no real way to plan a shoot financially.  So the best we could do was plan on about $100 - $200 per weekend to feed everyone, pay for tape and other incidentals…and that was about it!

Post-production.  Problematic or a breeze?

Well the first thing was the insane amount of footage we had.  Our D.P. Mike Lowhorn, god bless him, covered all of the scenes very well.  This was also due to David’s wonderful ability to see exactly how things should look, and accordingly storyboard.  We had something like 45 hours of footage to get through.  So that alone took a couple of months.  Then there was the editing situation…Lisa Harness was originally going to edit, but due to Thrill Ride Media’s (Eric Stanze’s company) extremely overloaded schedule, we all decided it’d be best if David and I found another editor.  Our friend Scott had edited a couple of shorts, but bravely agreed that a feature would be a good experience (he’s still in therapy).  However, he and his wife Bridget (assistant editor) are both teachers, and Scott has a son, so editing time was scarce, and due to the extreme amount of footage to get through, it took about a year from the beginning of the process to the end.  Also, when we did the first transfer for Eric Stanze to see, he noticed a residual “tinny” sound with all the dialogue.  To our horror, all of the dialogue had been recorded at a lower bit rate.  No one knew this during the shoot – it was a setting inside the camera that we were not aware of.  So my good friend Fo Jammi took it all and equalized it to the best of his ability.  There were like 2 pages of notes, other than just the tinny sound thing, that I also dumped on him…the sound clean up was like 40 hours of work in and of itself.  Color correction was also kind of crazy…but only because at that point we actually had a distribution deadline, and Lisa Harness only had 3 days to work on it.  So to answer your question…yep.  We had some hurdles!  But we got through them, and were as pleased as it was possible to be at the end result, given what we had to work with.  We appreciate the experience and everyone’s hard work – a miracle, given the lack of budget and experience we had.

Sub Rosa Studios eventually picked up the film for release.  How did that come about?

We were extremely lucky in that regard – we signed a contract with Eric Stanze upon pitching the idea.  So we knew before we started that we’d have DVD distribution for a percentage of after-sales profit.

Any final thoughts on the experience of shooting a film on an ultra-low budget?

It keeps you humble, and I’ve always lived by the motto “Do what you can with what you have.”  I do hope to obtain a budget for the next project, but I realize that in order to do that, I have to have experience, a well-thought out plan, and a good script.  So that’s the goal.

What's next for you?

Right now I'm working on rewriting a play I wrote and directed a few years ago into a screenplay.  There's a decrepit asylum, most of the patients are time travelers, and the place is ran by a tyrannical lunatic who only wants to be loved (I know, it sounds political).


© David Nusair