For many, a career in film is the ultimate dream, on both sides of the camera: many people flock to Hollywood, confident that their surely-inherent talent will be “discovered,” while others drop tens of thousands of dollars on film schools to learn technical aspects of the art, or how to produce, or how to attain the Holy Grail career in the filmmaking world: the position of director. None of these steps are necessary, however. One of today’s most iconic filmmakers, Robert Rodriguez, borrowed a camera and some friends and shot his masterpiece “El Mariachi,” teaching himself as he went along, and this film launched him into stardom. All that one really needs to make a film is a camera and the drive to succeed.
Herschel Zahnd is a local filmmaker who has made it his mission to spread the Good Word of low-budget independent filmmaking. After working in the field for about four years and writing, directing, and producing the feature-length slasher “Girl Number Three,” which played at the Fright Night Film Fest (and is available for free rental from Wild and Woolly Video ), he decided to start the FilmAspire Podcast , a how-to guide for first-time filmmakers. I sat down with him to discuss his podcast, how to get started in film, and some basic advice for aspiring artists.
(Interview edited for length and clarity.)
Describe the podcast in your own words.
"FilmAspire is an educational and motivational show about filmmaking… I just want to show people that, yes, you can do it, because here I am and I’m not overly exceptionally intelligent… I want people to see that it is possible, and as long as you have drive, determination, and passion for the artform and for what you’re doing and for the story that you’re trying to tell… yeah, you can make a movie. You just have to be willing to go for it and get there."
Do you have much of a local listening audience?
"That’s one of our biggest areas, the Louisville area. We have generally about 450 downloads a month, I think, from the Louisville area and Indianapolis. We have a large following stateside."
What’s your filmmaking experience?
"My filmmaking experience started after college. I went to college for theater… I was at work one night, and we were all joking around saying, 'We oughta make a movie,' and it kinda struck me, well, sure, why not? I always lovingly say that I uttered the famous last words of the filmmaking fool, simply: 'It can’t be that hard.' And I was later to come to learn to find out, yes, that it really is that hard - but if you apply yourself, it’s not impossible… We started out – and I say 'we' because I’ve never worked truly as a solo artist; I’ve always had a team of people working with me – we started out with a television show because I kind of figured, I don’t know what I’m doing - I can either go to film school and spend thirty grand, or I can learn it, just figure it out, and that’s what I did…
"I wrote a script and we loved it… We started saving money to produce the thing… and I took the money that I had saved up for the film and invested it in my first camera, which was a Canon XL2… I started doing wedding videos and things of that nature… and that eventually led me to meeting some individuals who were working with our local CW affiliate; they had a public access channel called WYCS… They were looking for somebody to do something in the horror genre, which I knew fairly well, and we created something called the Necroville Picture Show. It was a horror/comedy variety show, and I wanted to make it a platform for independent filmmakers to get their short films out. We had films coming in from all over Louisville and all over the country… but what we ended up discovering from people who were watching the show was that they would like the things on the show that were not related to the films. They said, 'Your show’s great, it’s hilarious, your characters are great. Your movies suck.' So, about the eighth episode in, we didn’t have a film, so I just sat down and I hashed it out… and we did our first content show. It was thirty minutes of complete content that we came up with. We did a few of those, and then we actually produced a short ourselves and put it on the show, [called] 'Tolerance'…
"From there we went back to try to do a feature film again. I was at work one night and I ran into this guy named [Nathan] Milliner… He was a comic book artist. I had seen a little bit of his work; I really thought it was fantastic artwork, and we got to talking one night… and he said, “I have a comic book based on Waverly Hills,” so he handed me this book and I started reading it and I could not put it down. It was a graphic novella; it only had about twenty pictures in it… and that was 'Girl Number Three'… I said, 'This is it, this is the story that we’ve got to make into a film.' From there I called Nate back… and eighteen months later we had a script… We finally found a main location, we shot it, we wrapped it; I edited the thing together, realized it was severely lacking, so we had to go back and write about fifteen more pages of story… We went back in, shot all that, did a couple reshoots, and we finally debuted the film… in 2009 at Horror Hound. I’ve kept going ever since. Nate and I are working on another film right now called 'A Wish for the Dead,' which is also based on a short comic that he did… I also have another film called 'The Trimmer,' which is another horror/comedy."
How did the podcast come about?
"Kind of in the same way that my movie-making career came about… I was in the midst of [editing] 'Girl Number Three' and I was bogged down in the process… My wife went to a seminar with a company she was working with at the time, and they brought in this guy to talk to them. He had a program called 'Every Day a Saturday.' My wife was really taken with the guy… and said, 'You should listen to him'… Finally I was so depressed with the state of the film that I finally [got] around to it and I started listening to the show… He had a very simple message… it’s the old adage, if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life… I was spending most of my time working in a job I hated and trying to get this film done, hoping I was going to find an audience for it, and something about that clicked. He had a podcast on Podomatic… I downloaded [the episodes] and listened to them with a hunger… It just opened my eyes to a different way of thinking, so I got to thinking in late 2010, 'How can I do that for filmmakers?' Do a podcast."
I wanted to ask about camera equipment… In one episode you talk about… how you’ll probably need about $2000 worth of equipment, including $800 for a decent starter camera. I was wondering what advice you would give to people who really don’t have that kind of budget.
"What I always tell people is… the technology is coming down the line… You don’t have to buy the best camera in the world… The technology has come down in price and is so accessible that you can actually get into a full HD camera for $800. The camera that I’m shooting on right now cost me $800… It’s a Canon T3I. The T2I is a little less; you can get that camera, which does get all the HD accoutrement, for about $600. You’ve got problems with that in that it doesn’t have good audio. If you’re going to spend money on an indie film, spend money on the audio, because there is nothing that will cause your film to be received poorly quicker than audio. They will forgive bad acting, they will forgive bad editing, they will forgive bad story. People will not forgive bad sound… So you need to get hold of some kind of sound recording gear; you can get an H4N Zoom for about $250…
"Then you need something to edit on. Most of your Mac laptops… are going to come with some kind of an iMovie or basic editing software. You don’t have to get the $1000 Final Cut Pro Suite… The better toys you have, the more polished product you’re going to have – but really, you don’t even need to go to that expense. If you have an iPhone 4, there are some really wonderful films that have been shot and edited on an iPhone…
"Then you have your other camcorders… there are a lot of them that do shoot HD footage. The problem [is] that the technology that’s in some of the more accessible, cheaper HD cameras are going to be fixed focal length cameras… It’s not going to give you that look, that “film” look… The level of your camera dictates the image quality.
"All that being said, I firmly believe that what you shoot your film with is entirely unimportant based on what’s in front of the camera… It doesn’t matter what you’re shooting on; as long as you’re telling a good story, you will find an audience… They will watch it and they will love it… The biggest lesson I’ve learned is you don’t have to have all the gear, all the crew, all the things that everybody says you have to have. You just do it if you have the passion and the story… That’s how I try to teach people to make movies, that’s why FilmAspire exists. I believe that people have stories to tell and they have to tell them."
What filmmakers do you admire?
"Any Steven Spielberg I will watch… I love Scorsese; I love Cecil B. DeMille and Hitchcock. More contemporarily, Tarantino; oddly enough, just about everything except 'Reservoir Dogs'… I love [Robert] Rodriguez… James Cameron. His movies just affect you so much; I can’t watch the end of 'Titanic' without crying… The director that probably has had the most influence on me is Joss Whedon."
If you could give just one big piece of advice to an aspiring filmmaker, the most important thing for somebody to know, what would it be?
"I love being able to say this because it’s backed up by one of the giants. I was at a show this summer with John Carpenter… I really wanted him to do the podcast, but he didn’t have time in his schedule, so I just asked him for a quote… I said, 'What advice would you give a young filmmaker?' and he said, 'Just do it.' The technology is there, it’s accessible; if you want to do it, if you have the passion to do it, go do it."
Image courtesy of the FilmAspire Podcast website.