For years, Steven Bernstein was the go-to DP for big budget comedies like Half Baked, The Waterboy, and White Chicks. Then he shot ‘Monster’ with Patty Jenkins which inspired him to get back into writing and directing his own films. Listen to this episode now or visit iTunes to download it to your device.
Steven Bernstein is a writer, director and cinematographer, best known for his work as DP on a huge range of films. After years of being the go-to guy for comedies, Steve finally opted for a change and was hired to shoot ‘Monster’ for Patty Jenkins which inspired him to pursue his own passion as a writer and director. His feature film debut as director is ‘Decoding Annie Parker.’
It’s immediately clear when talking to Steve that big budget comedies are not a natural fit. So why exactly did Steve spend so much of his career shooting broad comedies?
When you first start out you assume you can jump backwards and forward but what happens is you become known for doing something well and you become a safe pair of hands. So much of your early career, he says, is based on arbitrary decisions you make.
After years and years of big budget comedies, how did Steve break the cycle and shoot ‘Monster’? It all started while Steve was shooting 2nd Unit Action on S.W.A.T. and thought “I have everything I’ve ever wanted, but I’m not happy.” He says he wanted to jump off the 3rd Street bridge. With the permission of the producers, he left the film and was hired to shoot ‘Monster.’
Bottom line is that as a filmmaker we often have to choose between passion and money. If you only follow one, the other gets pushed to the wayside. On top of that, making the right decision is even harder to do when 9 out of 10 people are lying to you. Alrik asks how we navigate our careers knowing that people may be lying to us.
Should We All Move to Los Angeles?
What’s Steve’s opinion on living in LA to pursue a career in film vs living somewhere else? He says the important thing to have is a production team around you. And if you care about films you need creative stimulation that are oblique and the problem is that everyone in Los Angeles shares the same stimuli. Having said that, you have to weigh the pros of being in Los Angeles like access to a lot of actors and crews, giving you options and allowing you to find the best person for your project.
Getting Name Actors In Your Films
One of the problems Alrik and I have is reaching name actors for our films but Steve says it’s easy: write something good and important. Actors want to be in good films and prove their skills as an artist so if you have great material, actors will say yes.
Sure, but we don’t have an agent or manager, how do we do it once we have that great script? Steve says the key is to get your funding first, then hire a casting director to reach out and book actors.
Lessons from an Experienced DP, Writer and Director
Steve shares some of the lessons he learned from shooting movies including “The atmosphere you engender on set invariably ends up on screen” This works for both comedies and dramas. Timothy asks about working on a comedy set and if things are funny during the shoot, do they translate to comedy in the finished piece? Steve says that in his experience, no, and the same goes for drama. If an actor gives an impassioned performance and the director is crying and the script supervisor is crying, then it’s probably too big, so you have to distance yourself from the situation and evaluate a performance in context of all the pieces.
And we spend a little time talking about what makes for good comedy and for good stories. It boils down to one word: Truth
Steve’s Financing Model
Then we get back to Steve’s model for getting a film made with the actors you want. Traditional fundraising models are contingent on getting the right actor. Steve’s model disregards the actor and secures the money first. Get the money so when you contact agents you can say you have the money and a shoot date. A real offer means actors will read your script and take it seriously, and they would rather work on good material for a little money than not be working at all.
But Wait, How Do You Get Money Without Actors?
You need to convince investors that if you try and secure actors now, you will pay too much. Steve told his investors, that by getting the money first and approaching actors after the funds are raised and shoot dates are set, the movie will get the actors they want, and not just the actors you need. It puts the investors in a position of power. It flips the model. Investors come in on a the movie with a list of actors you want to get and you tell them that with their money you will go to a casting director and access people on this list. The money goes into an ESCROW account and will only be released if you secure one of the actors on that list.
The best thing about this model, he says, is that the investors are not risking any money at all until you secure an actor from the list they agreed to. But it works better than the traditional model because with money you now have negotiating power.
So you get a name actor, will they come prepared? Will they put the work in? What can we expect?
We talk characters vs outlines and the danger of outlining your screenplay.
It’s also important to have a script you believe in and have a vision for. You need to be able to communicate that vision.
If you like what Steve has to say, try one of his on-line seminars. He’s currently offering seminars in screenwriting, directing, cinematography and more. Check out his website for more info: https://www.somebodystudios.com/seminars
Or check out his feature film “Decoding Annie Parker”
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Thanks for listening!