Getting it Right
On Set, in Post and On the Screen: An Interview with Drew Sawyer
Whether he’s on the set of an indie Sundance horror film dressed only in a pair of bloody boxers or working with a talented post production team on an episodic television series, Drew Sawyer loves telling stories. His company, Moonshine Post-Production, has a rapidly expanding portfolio of start-to-finish post production projects, from feature films and broadcast episodics to commercial spot work.
With strong roots in the Atlanta film and indie community, Sawyer and his company recognize the importance of both cultivating talent and collaborating on independent projects to become better storytellers. When the folks at Moonshine are not cutting someone else's show, they're shooting and posting their own.
Drew Sawyer is dedicated to distilling Georgia’s creative projects into finely tuned stories that capture audiences worldwide. Here, he talks about the burgeoning indie film scene in Georgia, what it’s like to wear so many different hats within the industry, and how to trade in the “currency of favors.”
How did you get started as a filmmaker?
I started, just like a lot of folks, by making my own stuff. And when you do that, you have to wear all the hats and you have to do everything. When I directed my first narrative, it happened to be a feature and I was 21 and that was ridiculous! But I ended up finding out that I was pretty good at editing. So basically, I started a business of inheriting other people’s problems.
How did you realize your post production experience could help filmmakers avoid making costly mistakes in production?
I kept seeing the same kinds of problems over and over again. Whether it was broadcast TV or independents that my friends were making, I kept getting a little box of garbage and being asked to sift through it and make gold – like I had this magical editing garbage-sieve.
Editing is the final frontier before the world sees your movie, your show. So after fixing my own story problems and then fixing other people’s story problems, I realized that a lot of these mistakes can be avoided in the field, but you need solid, upfront pre-production planning.
If I took what I learned from seeing all these boxes of crap pile up, I could probably give some good advice based on what I’m seeing on the back end to help production. So I started helping others produce.
My friends would be making their own things and I’d advise, “Hey, listen. You’re going to run into these technical problems. You’re not going to have these types of story elements. Your scenes are going to fall flat. You’re going to wish you had done this or I promise you, it’s not going to work in the edit.”
What kind of response do you get when you give this advice?
It’s pretty polarizing. I say, “I’ve watched it. I can give you notes as it is. But I feel like you’re going to need some re-shoots unless you have these scenes.” And usually they go “Well, we’re done. We can’t go back. We’re out of money.” And it’s not really my place to rub salt in the wound and say, “Well you’re supposed to budget for that” or “You’re going to have to beg, borrow and steal just like the rest of us and find a way.”
Half of the people just say, “Shut up. Deal with what you’ve got.” And I say, “I can make it work with whatever you’ve got, but if you have the opportunity to re-budget and go pick up a few scenes, please shoot these types of scenes. And I’ll show you where these scenes should be in your narrative flow.”
I always want the work to be the best it can be, so when we’re in the editing room, I tell everyone up front, “These scenes have value; these scenes don’t.” You know what to look for when you are trying to cut things together to make story. If I tell them, “This scene falls flat for these reasons,” the director will usually get it because that’s their job. That’s how they work.
I worked with Molly Coffee on one of her early short films and she was willing to follow my advice and get the extra shots she needed. Then her film had a better flow and better pacing and the audience could really get into the story a lot easier.
So you’re working with Molly again?
I executive produced Molly’s TV pilot Pepper’s Place and Molly is digitally astounding at creating everything that is in the frame. She’s cast strong local talent and she’s built beautiful sets where humans and puppets interact in the world she’s created.
You know the whole cycle, from pre-production through post. How does that make you a valuable asset on set?
I pre-produce the hell out of everything because I know that if I don’t, I’m going to hate it on the back end. I know every pitfall we’re going to encounter on set that’s going to haunt us all the way through post. So I can see the future in a lot of respects, because I know where the ship’s heading, where this film’s problems will be later. I can usually see it on set and I feel like I’ve accrued enough experience on the back end to benefit filmmakers on the front end.
Despite being a post-pro guy, you keep getting producer credits. How did this happen on Treehouse?
Treehouse is a neat horror film that the director, Michael Bartlett, put together under some hilariously hard constraints in the Ozark Mountains. The film was pre-sold at a film market for distribution through Redbox.
They were shooting out of town, using the RED camera, shooting in a big format, and they’d only have a limited number of computers. So I came in as post-producer at the beginning of the project and designed their workflow.
In the film, it’s ice cold; it’s night. You punish people to get these types of shots. It was a small, short shoot and they knew they weren’t going to get a lot of takes. When we watched the footage, I told Michael, “Hey, you’re a horror film director. You know these scenes have to have a certain tonality or else it’s not going to be scary. Let’s just say it straight. I can get as much out of these scenes as you have here, but you really are missing these key elements. You don’t want to go to the film market guys that brokered your film and say ‘Oh, here’s my not so scary film.’”
Michael saw exactly what I was talking about; I was preaching to the choir. He went back to the Ozarks, did some additional shooting and he pulled it off.
I threw all the talent I could at his film with little to low budget and Michael offered me a producer credit. I really appreciated it. And that is part of producing: getting people to believe in your project. Not twisting their arms, but finding the right people for the right jobs at the right time to get the best film.
You use the term “currency of favors” to describe how Atlanta indie filmmakers are getting their projects made now. Can you explain that?
Favors are a commodity and currently in the Atlanta market, the indie field is trading this “currency of favors.” Outside of all the paid broadcast and bigger film stuff, in the indie zone you’re allowed to practice and do things you wouldn’t normally get to do. And that’s the exciting part of it.
To convince certain people to do certain projects, to rope ‘em in, one of the things you can offer someone is the opportunity to practice a skill set they don’t normally get to use. They get to move up a position. And then they get that experience with that skill set. It sounds pretty straightforward, but then how else are you going to get any better?
Some people tell me, “I don’t need to do that; I’ve already paid my dues.”
You can pay a lot of dues, but you can’t pay all of them. It’s constant. If you want to make an independent film you better have one of two things.
One, a lot of money. Then you can buy your way into anything, who cares? But you probably don’t have that because you weren’t able to convince investors that they should lose five million dollars on your idea.
Or two, you can trade on your name, your work ethic, your skill, your talents. Right now to get films made, you have to make the deals with favors. You have to barter; you have to trade. Like, “I’m going to post your film for nothing because you’re going to art direct my film for nothing.” And you do it. You have those favors stored up and then you call them in.
What are you looking for when you decide to collaborate on an indie project?
I’m attracted to creatives that know what they want up front, but are willing to listen and not rush in to green light their own projects. It takes more than just someone “telling” me a story. I have to recognize that storytelling talent and their willingness to collaborate. I have to see what they value in their images. I’m an editor and I value things on a scene-by-scene basis, and the weight of scenes. If they have samples of their style, it’s a lot easier, and if they have a body of good work prior, I can see, “Okay, you’re not a crappy director.”
But if it’s their first time, it takes more than desire. You can’t put your finger on the X factor – either they have it or they don’t. Unfortunately that’s not absolute. And I’ve been wrong. I’ve produced things that I thought would be great and they weren’t. The problem was not the production value. The problem was the story. I see a lot of things that shouldn’t be made, but the exciting thing about the indie world is that you’re allowed to make mistakes.
Okay, but let’s say that we as an indie community want to have a higher batting average. How can we be more discriminating in terms of story and have more Georgia projects reach larger audiences?
There’s no shortage of writing talent here in Georgia. The problem I see is people treating their scripts as if they’re too precious and they don’t workshop them. It’s basic 101: if you don’t workshop your script, then you’re going to green light a piece of crap. So take the script, workshop the hell out of it and spend a little money on rewrites.
It all starts with discerning what’s a good or a bad idea, and the only way we can do that here is peer review because we don’t have a lot of access to writers’ rooms. We don’t have a Hollywood machine behind us optioning all the ideas on the planet, ranking them and then picking out the right idea for the right marketing zeitgeist.
The one resource we do have here is good storytellers working with other good storytellers, and they’re good because they’ve honed their skills by practicing in the industry.
How does Georgia’s phenomenal production growth benefit indie filmmakers here who have some chops and are ready to make long format projects?
When I did my first film, I had to do everything because I didn’t have a choice. I trained people in the back of a restaurant how to hold booms and run cables. That was exciting, and I think filmmakers should do everything at first so they can realize what they should and what they shouldn’t do. But now we’re better than that. We’re all more practiced. And I think we can have faith in our specialized technicians and story makers.
I was told early on, you ought to go to New York or to LA. But I was learning my craft here and I believed that Atlanta was going to be a place with a lot of opportunity, and now it is. If you’re going to make an indie film or show right now in Atlanta (and that’s what I’m planning to do), we need to ask “the no shortage of experienced Georgia professionals out there” to work with us and let them do their jobs. That’s why departments exist. We don’t need to do everything ourselves, and we shouldn’t.
It’s just about our willingness to cooperate and collaborate on the up-front and design the right pipeline to get our film made from beginning to end. Don’t just say “we’ll just figure it out on set.” I’m not going to lie, you do have to be a cowboy sometimes, but if we want polished products that compete, we’re going to have to play by the rules. And you can trade your favors because you don’t have a lot of money, and when we’re willing to contribute, it’s possible to actually get these good films made.
A good idea doesn’t just jump out of your head and onto the page; it has to be refined. And now it’s time to actually undergo painful peer review, workshop the script and make the best screenplay possible and then work with an experienced team. And there’s no shortage of production technicians and collaborators in Atlanta right now that can make an amazing film.
What’s your hope for three years from now, for Georgia as a production center that originates and produces creative content?
Everyone is getting so good at their jobs. Good ideas are surfacing and I think we’re going to start picking and choosing those ideas. I think the machine exists now to put these ideas forth and deliver them to an audience and monetize these projects. And I want to be a part of that. I want to help that grow and I want to get better because of it.