UPDATE 25 Feb 14: The trailer for Know How is now online:
The filmmaker Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza (J.C. to his friends) had a hit with Second Skin, a documentary about the world of MMO gaming. Now he’s hard at work on his second feature, Know How — an exposé of the US foster care system that is also a musical(!). J.C. generously took time to answer some questions via email about the film, his low-budget filmmaking methods, the perils of distribution and how he puts a passion for social change into his work.
Making the Movie: How did you first become interested in filmmaking?
JCPE: Movies have defined me as a person since I was so young, I can’t remember not being interested.
My very first video camera was a rejected Christmas gift that my father received from my mother. Instead of taking it back to the stores, she gave it to my brother and I to play around with. Embarrassing videos of me from when I was 8 years old all the way through college are all in a big box at home. I think there’s even a recording of me talking about wanting to be a director when I was in the 5th grade.
While it was exciting making shorts with friends, I think what drove me to fall in love with cinema were my parents and their enthusiasm for foreign films; we’d buy weeklong passes to local film fests and go nearly every day. Movies have defined me as a person since I was so young, I can’t remember not being interested.
MTM: Your first feature, Second Skin, was a documentary about World of Warcraft that wound up being a hit at the South By Southwest (SXSW) film festival. How did you connect with the festival? What has been the life of the film afterwards?
JCPE: Second Skin was a true passion project. I went into massive credit card debt, borrowed from friends and family, and made the film at all costs. There’s something reckless and exciting about that, it makes needing a win that much more essential, and so you’re willing to move mountains. (If you’re lucky, so are your friends.)
The producers and I didn’t go out willy nilly either, we sat and strategized, built momentum with our audience, and released a massive (for our means) grassroots marketing campaign. Things that seem really normal now. However, back in 2006-2008 we were breaking some new ground and generating a lot of buzz. Its success really resides inside gamer culture itself, and the attention they drove toward the movie. Word of mouth spread over two years of filming, blogging, interviewing, and so when the picture was ready to be birthed, the audience was already there with us.
I can imagine that you’re wondering how this all relates to SXSW. Well, I think having a built-in audience was a big deal, and it was a perfect fit for the film/tech/music festival. Even in 2008, the interactive part of the fest was taking over, and this picture lent itself to that group of folks.
In all other respects, we connected the same way everyone does, we submitted and prayed and wrote worried emails to the festival programmers, exercised every resource we had. We actually weren’t accepted immediately. I received a call from an incredibly smart programmer in early January who asked me to cut the film by 15 minutes in two weeks, and if he liked what I’d done he’d accept the movie. That was a tough couple of weeks! I’m glad he liked it.
MTM: What did you learn about distribution with this film? Anything you would do differently, knowing what you know now?
JCPE: Hah. I learned everything I know about distribution from Second Skin. Before that I didn’t really understand the business or how movie deals really worked. I’d read some books on the subject, but nothing prepares you like real life experience though. There’s something about reading a contract when it’s your entire project on the line that makes it immediate.
If you’re going to sell the film, some major takeaways are to make sure your MG [minimum guarantee] makes sense to you. Keep an eye on the payment schedule in reference to distribution milestones, don’t worry too hard about 1 or 2 percent on royalties, and try not to lose that much sleep over all of it. I nearly drove myself mad the first time out. Finally — and probably most importantly — make sure you believe in the people you’re selling the movie too. Whether it’s a big or small company, you have to know that they’re in it for the right reasons, and that they’re going to do right by you.
That was my experience in 2008 and lots has changed since. Self-distribution is more enticing than ever before, there are more ways to get your content out there, and there are better ways to have an indie picture succeed. If you’re worried and can’t find somebody you think will give it real TLC, there’s nothing like committing to its success with your own blood, sweat, and tears.
Making movies can be a ‘get rich quick’ kind of thing if you’re insanely lucky. However, for most people — including myself in this instance — it ended up being about the journey. I didn’t really know that at the time, and took some hard knocks learning that the dream wasn’t going to be as easy to attain as I’d initially thought.
JCPE: They weren’t specifically all filmmaking experiences; I mean I did what every other indie filmmaker does, I suppose — watch lots of movies, do some commercial work. I produced tech docs for Vice, read potential scripts I could helm and I left the production company I’d helped build and pinned my dreams on.
Amidst some tumult, looking for some direction in life, I started volunteering at Streetwise Partners (a mentoring program for young adults) and going to UCB improv classes. I’ve always thought I had keen ear for listening and understanding others, yet in both cases I felt completely enlightened afterward. It led me to rethink where I was going and why I was doing what I was doing.
So, I started looking at the potential to do good, be good, and have fun while doing it. I wrote something that became my own little mantra: I am here on this earth to be a vessel for change. To fix the social inequities I perceive in our world. I use my love and willpower to create tangible change.
From that point forward, I founded a non-profit called White Roof Project to curb climate change, and created a little marketing piece to fundraise for a foster care film that seemed like a great project to direct.
MTM: Which brings us to Know How. Tell me more about the origins of your latest project.
JCPE: Each year a group of foster care youth discover a non-profit called the Possibility Project. These teenagers are chosen to participate in the program based on their desire to create a better world. They come together for one year to share their stories. They learn to create change for themselves and their communities. They also create an original musical from the stories of their lives.
I actually went to one of their first shows when I was in high school, and after college volunteered to shoot some of the productions. I fell out of touch with them once I started directing my first feature. And then, in 2010, I got a call from the founder requesting a meeting. They wanted to make a movie.
The project felt like a great one to be a part of. I’d get to work with foster care youth to tell their stories for the screen and then have them star in the film itself. It also sounded incredibly challenging, high risk, and unlikely to get funded. So we started by making a short fundraising piece for the film; rather than focus on it as a motion picture, the pitch was based on youth development and creating change with a national conversation. A day after the musical premiered on stage, we had a few major donations come in that allowed us to move forward — and so what originally was unlikely became very real.
I co-wrote and directed the film, in collaboration with foster care youth. The film is written and acted by them, about their real lives and we’ve been working on it for now nearly three years. I’m just rounding the corner on post-production.
MTM: I understand you’ve just launched a Kickstarter to help with post-production on the film. What is your strategy for reaching your funding goal?
JCPE: We did just launch a Kickstarter [link], and I’m really excited to finally be so close to finishing the film. We’re looking to raise $25K after nearly three years of production all that’s left is the color correction, motion graphics, pieces of the score and sound design/mix. Our strategy for raising the funds is to drive excitement through our networks, email campaigns, reach out to news media, keep our community on Facebook and Twitter involved, and grow that core fan base we need begin taking social action.
You’ve called it The Wire meets Glee — how did you strike upon this combination of gritty realism and musical fantasies?
JCPE: It all comes from the original way it manifested in my mind. The project has changed as well — so I’m not quite sure it fits that mash-up description any more. At the end of the day, this movie’s goal is to drive social change. I’d like to see it become a pivotal piece in changing the national conversation on foster care, and inspire us to become more involved with this population’s outcomes.
That said, the film plays in both the ‘musical’ and ‘real’ universe fluidly at times. The cast and I chose to portray a gritty reality with their world because their stories are real and we didn’t want to change that. The more we talked, the more truthfully we wanted to portray everything that had happened to them. To make light of — or glamorize — their lives would have been contradictory to how they wanted to tell their stories.
My ethos on the musical elements was to build a landscape where emotion could launch us into this other world where, like a monologue, innermost thoughts could take center stage. In that sense they’re not singing in the reality of their world, and it allowed for the musical parts to play within this realm of fantasy. A subway train has a rhythm, so a song finds its way from those diegetic noises. Or, in another case, a fight leads to one of those quiet moments where your mind wanders for meaning. Those kind of mental spaces are the ones where songs live.
A few movies I watched for reference were Kids, Annie, Juice, Chicago, Crash, Friday, West Side Story, and Manhattan. Of course, The Wire: Season 4 was on my mind throughout, and some of our stories felt reminiscent of ones that occurred there.
MTM: How does your directing approach differ between documentary and narrative work?
JCPE: Know How allowed me to straddle the line between documentary and narrative direction in an interesting way. At first, I sat; I listened; I asked questions and more questions, and I listened. We rehearsed as we re-imagined the script. The whole process was uniquely collaborative. The film took shape through [the foster care youth’s] stories, and scenes were ripped directly from their memories. A multi-protagonist plotline formed that weaved in and out of the characters’ lives. Sometimes they were deeply involved in one another’s world and sometimes they just glanced off for a moment. Somehow we ended up with a 124-page foster care epic.
I really wanted the picture to have a documentary sensibility; a major choice early on was using the Meisner technique as our primary acting method. We worked and studied for months “being in the moment” and “improvising through reaction” to find a truth as raw as their own memories. Nearly all the camerawork is handheld to give that feeling of being a ‘fly on the wall’. I chose long lenses to crush the space between the characters and the audience; their beautifully young faces were full of wisdom and sensibilities that felt like that of much older people, and I wanted people to see that. I wanted a world that brought you in, suffocated you with unseen walls, and left you feeling close to the youth.
The day before we started shooting one of the cast members said, “We are Warriors, Juan Carlos. We, Are, Real.” He was right. We lived the next four months of production battling to capture the moment. They call production a war because it is. My assistant director would joke, “This movie is a 13-inch foot trying to fit in a size nine shoe.”
MTM: Tell me about the equipment you used. How did you determine camera, lighting package, sound, etc.?
JCPE: We did the film on a budget so much of how the package was determined was based on a long shooting schedule over nights and weekends for four months. We had a van of lights provided by one of our three DPs on some of the bigger shoot days, a rotating cast of field mixers with slightly different setups, and a lot of gaff tape to make it all sort of stick together.
The camera we used was a Panasonic AG-AF100, at the time it was brand new and I pre-ordered one of the first five that made their way to NYC. The reason for that was two-fold: we could afford to buy the camera, so we wouldn’t have to worry about renting it constantly, and I had a few really beautiful lenses from my old 1965 Nikkormat that I thought would give the picture an older, grittier feel. We also picked up a nanoFlash so we could record images at a higher bit rate, and while it did capture more information, it was a real hassle to use.
I understand you are also editing the film yourself. Tell me about your postproduction methods.
I worked with a few editors from Beast Productions for a year before I took the project on. They were phenomenal to collaborate with and once we got a good rough cut, I jumped in.
Editing a musical had its own set of challenges. The major issue with a film that has such a gritty sensibility is finding ways to break into singing, for it not to feel too overbearing or false. And then, when audiences do come back to reality, that they don’t feel lost or disengaged. The other aspect that I struggled with was structure: telling a multi-protagonist story where sometimes the connections from one character to the other were quite loose.
Oh, and the film was cut on Final Cut Pro 7. We are mixing in Pro Tools and the fundraising will help us hire a good freelance sound mixer.
Talk about distribution. This is a film that really aims to make a difference and change the foster care system. How important is it for you to get it in front of policy-makers? Foster children themselves? General audiences?
JCPE: I’d love for Know How to be a focal point for dialogue and action. Early on, we’ve been creating strong relationships with local and national organizations. We’re outlining goals that’ll help us make lasting social impact in the foster care system and amplify the youths’ voices to audiences beyond it.
In a perfect world, I see the film inspiring, connecting, and activating people. I hope we connect foster youth to support networks that better their lives and advocate for reform, involve more adults to become advocates themselves and grow a network of people to be a political voice for foster care youth.
I’m hoping Kickstarter is a great start to a long engagement and growing a unified movement. I hope we get the chance to release Know How in theaters, on DVD, VOD, and instant streaming.
MTM: What would you say to an aspiring filmmaker who is just getting started?
JCPE: I don’t know anymore– Before I made Second Skin it would have been very, ‘Rah, rah, follow your dreams.’ After it, I got pretty existential with, ‘You have no idea the commitment you’re making and you have to really be ready for how broken things are.’ Nowadays, I feel like, ‘It has to be something you have to do, not just want to do.’ I’ve met a lot of people, smart creators, talented individuals, and what separates those who make things to those who don’t over time is that there’s an insatiable need to actually do it. You have to love being in the state of flow where you meet your own demons, find answers, engage questions that you’ve never asked before, and come out on the other side having enjoyed it. If you want to make films you have to need to make films, or at least that’s the only way the act of doing one vindicates itself whether you have success with it or not. It’s not enough for the ends to justify the means because there very well could be no ends to look forward to. So all you’re left with is the ‘means’, and if you love the ‘means’ part of filmmaking you’ll always love making movies.
MTM: What’s the best piece of filmmaking advice you were given?
JCPE: I had one teacher say something that really stuck with me “Only connect, that’s all you have to do.” Of course he meant that our primary responsibility as filmmakers is to connect with audiences. He used to say it every single week in class, write it on the board, and I always wondered why he would reiterate it so much. Around the end of the year he told us, “It’s hard to remember what teachers said in school, and if there’s one thing you should take away more than anything else from film school it’s to only connect.” A decade later, he’s the only person whose words I remember crystal clear; that age-old idea that movies bring people together and help us see universal truths in each other.
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UPDATE 8 June 2013: The Know How Kickstarter successfully funded! They will continue to raise funds for reach goals through the 20th.