"The Middle of the Middle" director Daniel Linn White answers the most commonly asked questions about the film and what it was like to make it.
q: What's the hardest thing about making a low-budget film?
a: I'd say it's the exact same problem you have when making a mega-budget film. Time. Of course, there's a lot more inherent skepticism when you're just standing there with a camera and no crew. I remember a conversation with an actress I had approached early on about doing the picture. It went something like, "It's kind of low-budget, it's just me and my friend. We just need you to come to this sleazy hotel in Hollywood. Yeah, it's a sex scene, but don't worry, you don't have to take off your clothes or anything. No, really, it's legit, it's just an experimental art-film thing I'm doing." She didn't really call back after that.
However, because there were no real setups, at least in the traditional sense, we were able to get a lot more work done when we were shooting. Even with those sort of built in time savings, we were racing against the clock constantly.
q: How did you make the film so inexpensively?
a: I took my basic story and patterned it to better fit what I had. It's really tough to ask an actor, even if they are your best friend, to put their life on hold for two or three months and not get paid. But, the reality is, when you're shooting a movie, even a simple talking heads film, that's the kind of time you need to get proper coverage.
With all that in mind, I basically geared the story to focus on the girl and the city of LA. The visual back story of The Boy and The Girl that runs through the film helped a lot, as it gave some nice cinematic time where I didn't have to worry about continuity quite as much. I really tried hard to limit how much coverage I needed to get of continuity dialogue, while still trying to give the audience an immersive experience. Even still it was a tightrope!
q: What kind of camera did you use?
a: A little Canon hand held. There were no lens adapters or anything special going on with this camera. It was pretty much straight out of the box. I had been researching different camera platforms for some time and kind of lucked out when it came time to buy this particular model. For me, overall resolution was the most important thing, because I knew going into it that I'd have a lot of control over color in the post process.
For whatever reason, on this model, Canon really upped the resolution on the imager and the resolution tests came back pretty close to standard 16mm, if not a bit sharper. I've spent the last few years testing a bunch of different camera platforms, not to mention all the film I've been shooting over the past 5 or 6 years, so I really knew exactly what I needed and what I didn't going into this. Though this camera lacked a lot of fine control over aperture and focus, we basically just took a lot of time setting up the shots and getting control of or manipulating the lighting.
We had a lot of conversations about not letting the footage look too "digitally". I think we did a pretty good job overall and aside from a couple of spots, I'm very pleased. The footage actually got mistaken for Red One or Genesis material by very technically inclined people on more than one occasion. I think that speaks pretty highly for the camera and what we shot.
q: How long did it take to write the story?
a: The script itself was actually relatively quick in coming. I had originally handed the DP (John Allen Phillips) a kind of crudely done outline with what I had in mind. But, I had been working on the story line for well over two years by the time it all kind of germinated and came together. I find that my stories tend to go that way, without any sort of real cohesion, just snippets of an idea or concepts that show up on paper once in a while. Then, one day, they just sort of appear and I sit down and write them out. The act of writing is just dreadful for me though, I really fight it tooth and nail.
q: Did you ever worry that you might not finish the film?
a: Daily. Seriously, every day I'd say to myself "please don't let this be the day this whole thing explodes in my face." Truth be told, it really shouldn't have worked. I mean, productions that have everything, the money, the talent, the crews, the time, they still make bad movies everyday. I remember talking to John early on and saying "I have this idea, and I think I might be able to pull it off", but I knew it was going to be tough right out of the gate.
I'd honestly say that shooting a continuity dialogue film with no budget over the course of some 40 or 50 days is much akin to walking on a tightrope with your shoelaces tied together and trying to carry a cup of coffee. You might make it, but I wouldn't bet on it.
q: How much are you influenced by other low-budget directors, such as Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith or Christopher Nolan?
a: I would say my work is much closer to the American New Wave of the late 60's and through the 70's as far as my approach and methodology. I think that the guys like Smith, Rodriguez and Nolan are far more remarkable for their talent and vision than they are for the way they cobbled their early movies together on a shoestring. I remember them all talking about shooting films like El Mariachi and Following in incredibly short time frames with these really crazy shooting ratios of like 2 to 1. I think it's because they are so good that they were able to make those films the way they did.
By contrast, on The Middle of the Middle, I basically ended up shooting around 38 days on a 46 page script. When I worked out all the raw footage, I think it was coming in around a 20 to 1 ratio and I could have easily doubled that. That type of schedule and shoot ratio is pretty typical for a studio originated film, and I think that shows in the movie. I really strove to create a sophisticated, well shot picture with deep coverage and a focus on getting the shot rather than just getting it done.
If I were to give it a name, I'd say I'd like to see this sort of approach become a "Post Indie Renaissance" in American cinema. I'd love to see these new digital technologies allow filmmakers to really dig in and make great films.
q: Is this film part of the "Mumblecore" or "Dogme 95" movements?
a: I actually think the film is pretty well distinguished from those types of films. When people first started asking me about these genres, I actually had to look them up, as I had no idea what they were talking about. I never set out to make something "alternative" in any real sense of the word. I always set out to create a well shot continuity dialogue film.
I'm not certain that I possess enough talent to pull something like that off well anyways. I think I rely a lot on digging in and finding things in kind of a slow, methodical way, which the traditional film making process seems to serve pretty well.
q: What advice would you give an aspiring director?
a: Care about what you're doing. If you're just in it for the money or some shot at fame or not working a day job or anything like that, you're toast before you even get started. It's really got to mean something to you to get something like this done, because it's way too easy to compromise if you're not fully invested in it. All the money in the world can't fix a lack of real, honest care about what you're doing.
q: What is the most important thing you learned making the film?
a: I learned that I always, always have to trust my gut instinct when it comes to creative decisions. Every single time I talked myself out of an instinct, or went along with something just for expedience or to not step on someone's toes, I regretted it. Without fail. I mean, I knew it before, somewhere in here, but having it laid out in such a broad fashion in a long form editorial piece really drove the point home.
q: What do you feel helped you the most during this process?
a: The fact that I'm a ruthless editor. I will cut anything that isn't working for me emotionally in the blink of an eye. I won't hesitate at all, I'll cut lines, performances, I'll re-arrange things and I'm definitely not married to my writing. I seriously think the film got cut down by about 10 minutes for the simple expedient that it just didn't feel right in whatever spot I happened to be cutting.
I personally think that it is really imperative that a writer / director be able to be distinct in those jobs and keep their perspective about each. I actually believe it's much preferable to have a separate writer and director. Having them be the same person is kind of like a kid growing up in a single-parent home, sometimes they come out, but it's never a surprise when they end up a mess.