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"From the Ground Up": Reel Film Reviews interviews Matt Kurtz

Undeniably, one of the best things about running a site like this is the exposure to movies that generally tend to fall through the cracks. Case in point: Falling Hard. A relationship movie revolving around several characters, Falling Hard marks the directorial debut of a promising newcomer named Matt Kurtz.

I had the opportunity to talk to Mr. Kurtz via e-mail, who provided a wealth of information about the production of his first film. His forthcoming responses should prove informative for aspiring filmmakers, and it seems clear that this isn't the last we'll be hearing from Matt Kurtz.

Falling Hard is available now from Vanguard Cinema, 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?

MATT KURTZ: I graduated with a BFA from The University of Texas at Arlington (UTA). At the time, they really didn’t have a film program; every semester was a class on video. But we had a professor by the name of Andy Anderson, a local filmmaker who that taught a film production class every spring semester. We would prep at the beginning of the semester, shoot during spring break, and [work in] post the remainder of the semester. But the rest of the time all they had to offer was video classes, which was a great learning exercise. Video was cheap and you could crank out three to four video projects a semester and learn from all your mistakes. I’d talk to other filmmakers at other schools that had film programs and they’d be working on one short film a semester. Learning the art of telling a story and the principles of filmmaking on video was great because we’d do three times the work at a fraction of the cost. Of course, those videos are to remain hidden because one: they are shot on video; and two: they are pretty awful. But they served their purpose.

And yes, I’ve always been interested in filmmaking. Originally I wanted to get involved in special make-up effects work, creating monsters and various nightmares. I toiled on that when I was young and pretty much forgot about it because I wasn’t really that good. Then at college I took an intro to video class and made my first short video. We had to show it the class and it got a great response. That’s when I was bitten by the filmmaking bug; there’s nothing like watching the audience scream, cheer and laugh as they are watching your film. Makes all the long, cold, lonely nights in the editing bay worthwhile.

In addition to directing Falling Hard, you also wrote it. What was the process like, going from an idea to a fully-fleshed out, complete screenplay?

Long! Like all first time screenwriters, it was based on something that happened to me when I was younger. They say you should write about things that you know about, so I wrote about getting my heart broken by a girl. That’s a story that everyone can relate to. Anyway, I spent about a year writing it, revising it, doing dialog polishes, etc. After about a dozen drafts I put it away for a month and didn’t work on it. When I eventually pulled it out and read it, I was hoping to get a fresh take on it - and it was not the take I was expecting. I realized it was complete crap! It was the story of what I went through, and sure I’d love to see it on the screen, but no one else would. It was basically the story of a guy that had a crush on his best friend’s girlfriend and throughout the whole script he’s debating on whether to tell her that he loves her. He eventually does on the last page, minutes before she boards a plane to study abroad for a year. If I made that film, I knew the audience would be screaming at the screen (or at me) for him to quit being a puss and just tell her twenty minutes into the movie. So, after a long debate with my brother Scott, I decided to throw that script out and do a page one rewrite. I raised the stakes on everything and really made that “ticking clock” tension on the main characters actions/decisions. I did about another dozen revisions on that version before I was ready to shoot it. So all in all, in about a year and a half, I did two versions of the script, a page one rewrite and about two dozen drafts of the screenplay.

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

I knew from the get-go that my brother, Scott, was interested in making the film with me. He starred in all my student videos and he was interested in putting up the money, with him playing a supporting role in the film. We came up with an extremely low budget at the beginning and I wrote the script with that in mind. I knew that nobody was going to give a lot of money to a first-time feature film director with nothing to show but some crappy videos. But Scott believed in me, which I’m forever grateful for. During pre-production, when Scott began to see how many great actors were auditioning, he stepped aside in a noble fashion and let a professional actor take the role he was wanting. Another example of why my big bro is awesome!

Basically for a year, Scott set aside any bonus money he made for busting his ass at work and put in most of the money that we needed to get the film in the can. During post-production, it was asking “donations” from family and friends. The rest went on my credit cards. I raked up a pretty big amount on the credit cards, but it was all worth it. All I had to do was pop in a copy of the movie and remember all the fun we had, the friends we made, and that we were preserving that time on film forever. I was making a dream come true, and you can’t put a monetary value on a dream. Besides, fortune favors the bold, right? Or at least that’s what I kept telling myself when I was writing out those monthly credit card payments.

What was the shoot like? Any major hurdles?

The shoot went amazingly smooth. Andy taught us in school the great importance of pre-production. You have to be prepared. Once you started shooting you are fighting nonstop against time, the elements and the budget. I remember Andy’s famous saying during school was “you can do it fast, cheap or good; now, pick two of those three and shoot the damn scene!” Turned out to be very true.

But I storyboarded the entire film beforehand and had about two weeks of rehearsals with the actors. The crew knew exactly what I wanted from the storyboards, so once we stepped on set we shot it.

We had a 22 day shoot and never shot over twelve hour days. We just had an incredible cast and crew who were full of passion. That, along with being prepared, made the shoot smooth.

Post production…problematic or a breeze?

Pure hell! With the shoot being so easy, we knew that the shoe had to drop during post. The film was shot in summer of 1999 and was finally completed in the summer of 2002. Because we didn’t have money for editing, we had to use an Avid MC-Express at night, since it was being used during the day. I edited the film myself, not because of not being able to find an editor, but because I had storyboarded every shot, and we shot only what was storyboarded. We didn’t have a lot of coverage (wide shots, close-ups, over-the-shoulder shots, etc) because we were only shooting a 1 to 4 shot ratio. I knew beforehand where every shot was going to cut, where I would use a master, what line I wanted the close-ups, etc. Having anyone but me cutting it didn’t make sense because I already had the film cut in my head. Also, I love to edit because there’s nothing like watching a scene that played over and over in your head come to life in the editing room. Very satisfying.

Anyway, we could only use the editing system at night and we were allowed only enough memory on the computer to cut in 15-minute chunks. I’d be up all night, go to work nine to five, then edit all night again. Then, after about two weeks of this, the editing system crashed and was down for six months! And throughout the six months, they’d tinker with it on and off and would inform me that it was working. I’d grab my box of beta-sp masters and lug them up there, spend a couple of hours importing my raw footage and after about two cuts the damn thing crashed again. This happened over and over until they finally worked out all the bugs six months later.

Once I eventually had my final cut, my producer Jason Croft and I began the foley work. We’d work on it over the weekends and recorded everything from scratch. We spent about a year doing this on and off. When we finally raised enough money for a sound mix, we brought the film and all of our foley work to Dallas Audio Post Group. They listened to our foley that we spent a year on and said it was unusable, mostly because of the hum of roomtone. We were devastated, but we knew that they were the pros and knew what sounded good. They saved our ass by giving us a great deal and redoing all necessary foley, ADR and the final mix. Jason and I laughed our asses off when we found out that after a year of doing foley, Dallas Audio Post only used two sound effects of ours! Now whenever we watch the film, Jason and I are damn proud of those two sound effects.

Also, during all this time, Jason and I were trying to come with our new production company name. When I was telling a friend about all our problems that we faced and overcame, she made a comment about how tenacious we were. A light bulb went off in my head and that’s how Tenacity Films was born. Fits our mentality towards filmmaking perfectly.

Vanguard eventually picked up the film for release. How did this come about?

I had nothing to do with this and give 100% credit to Jason Croft. After working on the film for so long, and being rejected from many festivals and distribution companies, I told Jason that we needed to take a break from Falling Hard and start lining up our next film. I began writing a new script (Backwoods) and basically put Falling Hard on the back burner, mostly because I was burned out on it. Jason started making contacts with people in Dallas that had their films distributed and made contacts with their contacts. It was great because he never told me what he was doing even when he would send the distributors a screener of the film. He wanted me to stay focused on the new script. Then one day he calls me and tells me that he had three distributors lined up that were interested in taking on the film. I was in complete shock. We looked at all three deals and went with the best for the film, Vanguard Cinema. So, if it wasn’t for Jason, Falling Hard would probably still be my very expensive home movie. Jason just did an incredible job.

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

Be prepared for the long haul. Spend a ton of time on pre-production. Storyboard like crazy. I know a lot of filmmakers that are about to make their first feature and they comment on how they don’t like to storyboard, like it cramps their creative process and they just want to improv it on the set. Well, I’ll tell you, nothing ruins a crews moral and momentum like a director that is trying to figure out the next shot. At least have the storyboards as a template and back-up in case you get lost in the hectic pace and chaos that is on every set.

And the other thing I can say is make sure you are passionate about what story you are telling. That drives you when everything is turning to shit during shooting or post-production. Your love of the story is what will keep you going, even during three years of post-production.

Oh, and one last thing: be a filmmaker and shoot on film. It’s hard enough to get a low budget film distributed and shooting a feature on video is one more thing you will have going against you. Unless your film has a novelty to be shot on video, find the extra money to shoot on film.

What’s next for you?

Well, I’m returning to the genre that first got me interested in filmmaking: the horror genre. Our next film is going to be Backwoods, an horror-action movie currently in pre-production. But, I want to direct all genres of movies. I did my dramatic-comedy, now it’s time for horror-action, then I’d like to do a “balls out” comedy. And concerning Backwoods: yes, the entire film has been storyboarded. We might have a lot more money on this one, but there is a ton of action, stunts, and special effects. We have to be prepared more than ever on this one. So please: wish us luck!

© David Nusair