Writer, Producer and Director, Craig Singer, talks to us about the ever changing landscape of film distribution, working with a bevvy of 80s icons and discovering future stars, the advice he offers to NYU students in his native New York, and whether or not he would go to film school if he was starting out today.
A little while ago I had the pleasure of chatting with Thomas G. Waites of The Warriors and The Thing fame. At the end of our time talking, knowing that the aim of this blog was to stimulate discourse and share learning between filmmakers, he was very quick to insist I speak to Craig Singer.
Craig has worked on low budget short and feature projects, with actors who are both starting out or are already established, such as Matthew Lillard, Neil Patrick Harris, Gary Stretch, Ally Sheedy, Ralph Macchio, and even Debbie Harry. I conclude that Craig must be something of the Godfather of the indie film in New York City. It's a moniker I put to him which he greets with warm laughter.
"I try to be a very nice guy. I've been very fortunate. I like to think that I work well with actors and I communicate effectively. I've been blessed to have worked with some extremely talented fresh faces up and comers, some new talent as well as established talent."
The common trajectory for a filmmaker these days is to make a short films before making the step up to features. For Craig, the journey has been a little different. In 1995 he began his career with the feature film Animal Room which starred Matthew Lillard and Neil Patrick Harris.
"Yes, it was a different time. The industry, as you know, changes on an hourly basis nowadays. It was very different back then. I think sadly, it's now more challenging for the creative to drive the conversation. For instance, in what we call the olden days, the script and the writer had a larger voice in the room. Nowadays it's almost silent. What drives the conversation is more about tax incentives and things like that as opposed to the story. Which is disheartening in some regards.
It's interesting if you look at the history of cinema and what previously got films green lit, whether it was the writer, or the actor, the director, or the marketing department. The different things, these trends that ebb and flow. Nowadays, with all of the emerging platforms and streaming, it's never before been easier for filmmakers to get their films made. The challenge is rising above the muck and the white noise that's out there and get your work seen."
Another star of the film was a young Amanda Peet in her first feature film role, which would set her up on a long career. While this is something which Craig is pleased to have played a part in, her casting was also an important lesson for him as a filmmaker.
"It's an interesting story. At the time, I was the sole voice in the room. Everybody was anti and said, "She's never going to amount to anything, go with this person, go with that person." It was a lesson that the best agents managers and casting people, even when they have the best of intentions, a lot of times do have personal agendas and things they want to push you towards. As a filmmaker, you really have to sometimes trust your instincts and your gut. Sometimes it serves you and sometimes it doesn't but at least you're making those decisions and those successes and failures on your own terms."
One way to see your work rise above the 'white noise' these days is for your film to boast a stellar cast, something that Craig's 2003 feature A Good Night To Die could certainly do. The comedy thriller starred Gary Stretch, Michael Rappaport, Frank Whaley, James Russo, Ralph Machio, Ally Sheedy, Seymour Cassel and Debbie Harry of Blondie fame. While a dream cast for any young filmmaker, for Craig the experience wasn't all smooth sailing.
"It was like a double-edged sword. While I got to work with some incredible talent, their availability was in some cases scarce or nonexistent. I remember in the case of a couple of the actors, they literally came in the day of shooting and we had almost no rehearsal time, let alone 'get to know you' time. It was not easy. In some cases, we did have dinner the night before but there was very little rehearsal time. That was a little daunting because you do try to get to know a person as a person.
I always remember my favorite filmmaker is Elia Kazan. He would never really cast through auditions. He would take you to lunch and get to know you as an individual. That to me is great advice and it's always served me well, because sometimes people freeze up during auditions, then sometimes people are terrific on auditions but then really freeze up in front of the camera. I think trying to develop a relationship or a shorthand so you can talk to somebody or whisper into their ear and encourage them or tell them what you feel will be helpful suggestions is in my experience the way to go."
With all of that said, I ask what advice he would give filmmakers who have bagged a brilliant cast member for their project, but may find they don't have the time they would like to work with them. When budget and time is tight, how do you make the most out of the opportunity you have?
"With me, I think it depends on the actor and it depends on the material. Sometimes actors really want to be left alone and sometimes actors want to collaborate and really hash things out and really go deep into the history of a character and their lifestyle and the cars they drive and the vacations they go on. I'm fine either way. We're dealing with human beings and it's always case by case."
It's sound advice that would apply to both feature and short film. In fact, it was after A Good Night To Die that Craig would shoot his first short film Kill Charlie, that would reunite him with Gary Stretch. What was it like going from two feature film productions to a short film?
"In some regards it's very liberating. It's nice to be able to get in front of the tools and the toys and the equipment that we need to make the things that we're passionate about. Sometimes it's just very liberating to be able to execute an idea that can happen in a matter of months as opposed to a matter of years.
In the case of Kill Charlie, we just thought it was a very fun and amusing idea to think about the lives of the kids from Willy Wonka, what happened to them years later, and how they held Charlie accountable for the misery in their lives. We thought that was a really fun funny premise that could actually be a really funny film, but we did it as a short.
The shorts that I've done tend to come together rather quickly. The team, and the financing, and this story, and the actors are pretty much in place. Then it just becomes logistics, when and where do we want to shoot this thing. It becomes a lot easier."
Craig returned to feature filmmaking not long after with horror Dark Ride, starring Jamie-Lynn Sigler, which he was able to make thanks to the success of A Good Night To Die at Tribeca in the US and Cannes in Europe. It was at Cannes that Craig was approached by the then president of Lionsgate, Peter Block, about making a follow up project.
"Peter really liked my film and he asked what I wanted to do next. I said I wanted to do a horror film. He said, "We are your partner." We cobbled that together with a combination of Lionsgate and some equity financing and we shot that over at Universal Studios.
It was a very different experience. It took a lot longer. Obviously, the crew was significantly larger. It was a night shoot which was never any fun but I was very happy with the film, even with the limitations and restrictions, it was my first large scale theatrical release. Which has almost gone the way of the dodo, unless you're a 100, 200, 300 million dollar Marvel film. The smaller theatrical is almost non-existent. To get a studio to release your film across the country is almost the most arduous difficult impossible thing imaginable."
Films released these days are often made for the market rather than the art. While this makes absolute commercial sense, it's interesting to note the shift in what the market wants, particular with how differently today's market consumes content. It's something of which Craig is very mindful.
"Fans now demand a deeper engagement in the things that they love. Whether that's anime or the graphic novels or films or TV and it's become the new normal. But young people they consume their content much differently. They're active participants, they're not passive. When I was a younger man, I'd watch a film and that I'd want to go to sleep. Now people are into second screens and multitasking and they've been wired since they're in diapers, so they really view and they consume their content much, much differently than I did.
My film school was the 70s and I just loved the films, but the pacing and the timing of films from the 70s doesn't translate to today. Whether that's the cause of multitasking, MTV, social media revolution, selfies, Instagram, Facebook, who knows? It's all about the little snippets on a phone and gamers and e-sports and there's this whole new categories of entertainment that continue to crop up. I feel like it's not saying that it's a lack of attention span, it's just it's a different animal."
Craig often speaks to NYU film students in his native New York, offering advice as they start out on their careers. I ask him what is the question he is asked more than any other.
"It's probably neck and neck horse race between investors and distribution. We've got a lot of people looking for money to make the film, finish the film, post the film. I think one of the big challenges, and this is just personal observation, is that so many films now are made in the million dollar range.
I feel like the good news is that the technology's become a commodity ubiquitous with filmmaking. You can shoot a film on an iPhone and it could be terrific. The bad news is, when you're spending relatively small amounts of money on a film, your investors tend to become creative partners. Whereas in the olden days, when films were more expensive, investors tended to be more hands off and accepted there's artistry to making films and the artistry sometimes flies in the face of conventional business.
Nowadays when they're spending a million dollars or under, they tend to be writing experts and directing experts or producing experts. That's why you see so many terrible films getting made by all the wrong people for all the wrong reasons. I think that's a problem and I don't know what the answer is or if that's going to go away because films are going to continue to be more and more affordable."
On the subject of teaching, with all the attached expense, is going to film school or university something that young filmmakers should be encouraged to do, or should they forgo that and pick up a camera instead? I ask Craig what he would do if he was a young filmmaker today.
"That's a great question, Mark. I'm probably a little biased because when I was a younger man, I started my career rather late. I was 30 which is late and I couldn't afford film school. I used to write letters to Elia Kazan and he used to write me back and I've saved those letters to this day. He just said, "Don't worry about film school, pick up a camera and start shooting," which was really great advice because that's how you learn by doing and by making mistakes.
I can't really speak to the film school experience because I've never had it. It's very subjective but I guess whatever works for you, if you're more comfortable in a classroom setting and you need that infrastructure by all means. If not, then certainly as I mentioned earlier, the technology is in your favor. You could grab a camera or even your iPhone and you can go out and you can start to work on your composition and shoot some scenes and shoot some monologues of actor friends and work on lighting and sound and all of the different verticals that help make you a better filmmaker."
To see Craig's director's reel click here.