Motke Dapp on releasing his second feature and lessons learned in distribution
Writer and director Motke Dapp talks to us about the making of parallel universe comedy feature Another Version of You, the cast that powers it - including a WWE star - and valuable lessons learned when it comes to distributing an indie feature.
Photo Credit: Gabriel Max Starner
Hello Motke, thanks for talking to us today. Congratulations on the recent VOD/Streaming release of your second feature film Another Version of You. Can you tell us what the film is about and the themes you were looking to explore?
Hello, and thanks for having me.
Another Version of You is a film about a guy (Diggsy) who has always loved this girl (Suzette). Unfortunately, she marries someone else, and this sends Diggsy into a downward spiral that lands him at a bar where a mysterious stranger played by NFL legend Eddie George gives him a magic key which allows him to travel into parallel universes. He takes this key and leaves everything he knows to find another version of Suzette in an alternate reality who might love him back.
I wanted the story to have this universal appeal to it - the idea of having an odd sort of “do over” in life using parallel universes as the vehicle - something most people could relate to. As in all things film, sometimes you uncover seemingly unintended morsels through the process, so the themes I was looking to explore (desperation, loneliness, hope, new beginnings) were expanded through collaboration and figuring out what resonated with audiences.
Even more so in the film than in the original script, the theme of becoming a better human and not looking for the unattainable “whatever” became even more pronounced.
The nature of the story being told means so much relies on the actors playing the characters of Diggsy and Suzette. How did you go about casting these roles in particular, and what was it about Kristopher Wente and Sara Antonio that landed them the parts?
Casting is always one of the most pivotal things we can do. This was such an interesting project. Almost every actor just fell into place without much work.
I had worked with Kristopher on a few projects and when the opportunity to make this film presented itself, Kristopher was an easy choice. As many of us know, when you find someone you work with so well, it makes the decision a lot easier. Kristopher had played a character similar to Diggsy in a short film I co-wrote and directed, and that short film was part of the catalyst for us filming the first footage we shot in Iceland and France.
For Sara as Suzette - this is a fun story and speaks into the power of community. When we first started talking about making the film, Kristopher read the script and immediately told me he thinks he knows who would be perfect for Suzette. He invited me to his birthday gathering and introduced me to one person at the party - Sara Antonio. Within 5 minutes of chatting with her, it was done in my mind. The next thing was convincing her to take on this role and travel to some crazy places with no financing in place quiet yet. It was risky for all of us, but most of all for Sara, since she had never worked with me before.
Kristopher and Sara gave so much - it was amazing spending several years working with them on this film. Getting the leads of your film can happen so many ways, and I’m really thankful for how we landed these two amazing humans.
Another piece of casting in the film sees WWE’s Lana AKA CJ Perry in a very different kind of role. Can you tell us how this came about and what she brought to the role?
Part of giving a film a chance to succeed is to cast someone who has some notoriety. We didn’t have a huge budget, so we had to rely on relationships and the hope that people would like the script or maybe could see something in some of my short films that would spark their interest to be part of this project.
We started talking to CJ early on because of a relationship. CJ is a WWE Superstar who has done some acting outside of that world (Pitch Perfect and some other films), and she is interested in doing as much as she can to expand her roles in this industry. I think something that appealed to her was her character, Gwyneth, was nothing like her. This was a fun challenge for her that she took very seriously. She met with me several times to do deep dives into her character, knowing she wanted it to be very different than the Ravishing Russian she plays on television and in the ring.
CJ has a crazy busy schedule with the WWE. When we were filming, she was only able to film 3 days a week, as she was playing Lana around the world the other 4 days. But she was open, prepared, and ready to tackle anything I threw at her once she arrived on set. And the film really shows off that hard work.
You’ve worked with cinematographer Micah Simms on a host of film projects, both short and feature. How does having the ongoing relationship help you from project to project, especially in the case of this film?
I love Micah Simms. As a matter of fact, he was the DP on a commercial spot we filmed yesterday. I’ve been working with him since 2010, and it’s been beautiful growing as an artist and director with him. Like anything, the longer you work with someone you really enjoy working with, the more you allow the other person to do the thing they do, thus freeing you up to do what you should be doing.
When I work with Micah, I tell him what I want, and he makes it look as good or better than I had hoped. He’s constantly pushing himself to get better, and that’s something he and I discussed during a memorable conversation back in 2012. Let’s get better all the time. And he is definitely doing that, and it’s a joy to work with him anytime I can.
We filmed Another Version of You in spurts over 3 years. Every time we got together to film, Micah was better. I hope I’m always getting better, but I know he is, and it’s a joy to be part of in any way.
Were there any particular lessons learned on your first feature The Many Monsters of Sadness – or indeed your subsequent short films - that you took into Another Version of You?
Oh the amount of lessons learned while making an almost no budget feature film…
Here are a few:
Make sure the script is as close to flawless as possible. You don’t want to shoot a bunch of stuff you’ll just cut - you’re using people’s time and not paying them, so be wise with their time.
When casting, film the casting and make decisions based on the actual audition. The camera loves some people. Sometimes a big performance won’t feel as big on camera. Sometimes what feels nuanced in person doesn’t translate to the screen.
Making a feature takes a very long time. And when you can’t pay people to edit it, you’re relying on someone’s free time to finish the film, which makes the process take that much longer.
Find a way to get the best people involved. Cheaper now could cost you down the line.
If you’re making a low budget indie, either LOVE the script or attempt to make a genre film to the best of your ability. Distributors liked The Many Monsters of Sadness (or so they told us), but they said they didn’t know how to sell it.
And with every short I’ve made, I’ve always tried to learn something or stretch myself to get better. I continue to make references to previous projects because filmmaking is problem solving. If you’ve solved something similar in the past (or haven’t) that experience can be invaluable.
When we made Another Version of You, we tried our hardest to learn from past mistakes, but making movies is really hard. Even giant budget films have massive problems. Surround yourself with incredible people who are smarter than you and give everything you can. And then give yourself deadlines. Without deadlines, things will drag on forever.
What would you say is your biggest takeaway from the making of this film?
Distribution is the one thing, as an independent filmmaker, you can’t practice. You can practice pre-production, production, and post-production over and over and over again. Distribution isn’t like submitting to film festivals. It’s a world of sharks and bears and werewolves who want to eat your face off. It’s filled with empty hope, heartache, and uncertainty.
When I make my next film, I would love to already have distribution in place so I don’t have to navigate those waters again. There’s a gamble to it, though. What if you make that film that gets big bucks at a huge festival? If you have a deal in place, you’re married to that number. Filmmaking is gambling, really. At this point, I’m ready for a few sure bets, but those are rare.
Another Version of you premiered at the Nashville Film Festival. Can you tell us about your experience of the festival, the festival circuit and your experience screening the film? How does it feel to have it available online now?
I have had films in the Nashville Film Festival since 2010. Going to the festival was kind of what made me want to pour more time and effort into filmmaking. It’s a magical experience to watch your film on the big screen with a bunch of strangers and friends.
When Another Version of You premiered, it was the most highly anticipated thing I had ever shown, mainly because we had been working on it for 3 years and countless people had been involved (I’m sure someone counted). The film screened 3 times to sold out crowds and then got a 4th screening, which is almost unheard of. It was the 3rd most screened film in the 49 year history of the Nashville Film Festival, which was unreal. We won the audience award - something that gave us great momentum moving into distribution.
We only screened at two other festivals, mainly because we were so focused on trying to find the best distribution option. We won best feature film awards at both of those festivals, and we couldn’t be more thankful.
Now the real test is out. We’re trying to get people to buy the film and watch it. And in a world of everything streaming and on demand by merely paying a subscription fee - it’s pretty tough. We’ve gotten amazing opportunities to talk about it and very positive film reviews, so that’s been encouraging.
Many independent filmmakers find it difficult to choose the right distribution path for their features. What has your experience been in this regard and what advice would you offer?
Distribution, as we already discussed, is so, so tough. In some ways, I think it could be better for a filmmaker to take a chance on distributing it themselves and spending money in marketing and PR. People told us that early on, so we saved some of our budget to be able to do ad buys on social media and get a killer PR firm to get us opportunities to talk about our film to spread the word.
Unless you’re going with a major distributor, you have to do the marketing. It’s that simple. When I finish this interview, I’m going to cut a new “date night” trailer that we can release the week of Valentine’s Day. We’re always looking for angles. Our distributor has so many films they work with, that they have only minimal bandwidth for all of their films. It’s something we understood going into our deal, so we planned for it.
I’m sure things change if you have a breakout hit with a mid-major, but most indies are doing it themselves, even if they get a deal with a more indie distributor.
Despite now having two features under your belt, you’re still creating short films such as The Ghosting of Elise Montgomery. What is it about shorts you love the most, and how does taking a short film on the festival circuit differ to taking a feature?
Creating short films was my film school. I’ve written and directed over 20 films, and in that process, I tried to find my voice. I had to learn how to direct. I probably directed 8 or 9 films before I really felt like I knew what I was doing.
I continue to do shorts because it’s a great testing ground. On the last several shorts I’ve done, I’ve had conversations with some of my key people to see what they wanted to attempt, and I always do something to push myself and learn something or try something new. It’s a great way to stay sharp and grow. I direct commercials for a living, and those are super fun, but it’s different than carving a narrative and having character nuance coupled with framing, timing, and all the other good things we want to see on screens. If I had my druthers, I would only do features, but until then, there’s a good chance I will try to do a short every year to keep improving those skills.
And when you have a short at a festival, you’re kind of a small fish. It’s OK, though. You get to watch a bunch of great films and meet incredible filmmakers. Going to festivals is such a great thing. I only go to one or two a year, mainly because it can be a tad expensive (time, travel, lodging, food). But when I can go, I always seize the opportunity. And I have gone to the Nashville Film Festival every year since 2010, because it’s my hometown festival. Supporting the festivals near you as a filmmaker is important.
You can stream Another Version of You on iTunes now.
You can follow Motke on Twitter: @MotkeDapp