“The director’s obligation is to make the best film possible, not necessarily to represent the screenplay as faithfully as possible.”
Lights Online Film School followed up with filmmaker Ryan Patch to dive into one of his award-winning short films, The Offering, about a father and son who travel deep into the woods to make an offering to a mysterious force. When they realize a key element is missing, they must improvise before time runs out.
Before we go behind-the-scenes, let’s take a few minutes to give the film a watch:
Hello, Ryan, and thanks for sitting down with us to deconstruct The Offering! How did you and your team at Bitter River Film & Media come up with the idea?
The Offering was the brainchild of writer and my frequent collaborator, Michael Koehler.
I don’t know everything that goes on in Mike’s brain (indeed, I imagine a look inside would be a befuddling feat), so I really can’t speak to his process.
What about the screenplay resonated with you?
What intrigued me about the material is that I wondered, “What would drive someone – the father character in this film – to do something as horrible as he does here?”
I think most of us cannot imagine being desperate enough to sacrifice something like another human being to a force in the woods, but we routinely throw away things that are just as important to us – careers, relationships, other people – because of addictions. This film to me was trying to put “skin” on what drives us to such irrational actions.
Many people ask me “what happened before the events in this film?!?” – a question that I don’t like answering because the fun of this film is listening to others conjecture about what they think brought the characters there.
Fair enough! How much, if at all, does the final film deviate from the screenplay?
More generally, as the director, can you discuss the process of translating screenplay to screen? What is a director’s relationship and obligation to his/her source material?
The director’s obligation is to make the best film possible, not necessarily to represent the screenplay as faithfully as possible. A screenplay is an unfinished “plan” for a movie, and sticking to it above all else might damage the film.
On the other hand, much hard work has gone into creating a screenplay, so you deviate from it at your own risk. As a director, it’s your job to know the screenplay so well that you know whether a deviation will help or hurt the film, and to keep the end goal in focus at all times. You’re the one who’s job it is to have your eye on the final product and know how the individual decisions your crew make will affect the final product.
The Offering follows the screenplay pretty closely, however we did wind up cutting a few lines, just to make things move along more quickly. This was actually Mike’s, the screenwriter’s, idea!
How did you finance The Offering?
The Offering was commissioned by a production company, Red 5 Studios, who’s goal was to create short “genre” content (fantasy, sci-fi, etc.) in 4k. They gave $10k grants to emerging filmmakers, and so filmmakers like us got the chance to make a short film on someone else’s dime, and Red 5 got high-quality 4k content.
Red 5 generally trusted us, as filmmakers, to make decisions about the film, although they had specific opinions on some things, like the film’s length; the presence of intriguing elements at the start of the film; and the presence of music (things that were important for the web-based nature of the content).
Red 5 had “final cut”, but they did not have to exercise it “over” us. We agreed on the vision throughout the production of the film, and their notes were all very helpful and constructive from beginning to end.
That’s awesome. Any advice for filmmakers hoping to land and work with investors, as you have?
Be aware that an investor is someone who comes along because their goals and your goals align. They provide the capital that helps you, and you provide something that helps them.
Rarely, if ever, will an investor simply give you money because they just believe in your artistic vision. These “investors” are called “patrons of the arts” (or, perhaps, “your parents”). They do exist, but I think it’s important that we differentiate between “investors” and “patrons”.
I think there tends to be an erroneous view held by many young filmmakers. It can be easy to believe that your movie deserves money because it’s a great film and should get made. That’s a nice idea, but it’s just not the way it works.
An investor is someone who is looking to make a return on the money, so to court “investors”, your film should have a reasonable path to make a return. This is actually very difficult for a short film – so, “landing work with an investor” is a difficult prospect for a short. We were able to ally with Red 5 at the right time, but I am not sure that they are currently commissioning more shorts – perhaps something that speaks to the profitability of the format.
A better way to think about this might be to think about who wants to tell the same stories that you do – foundations, NGOs, cultural centers, etc.?, and then approach them to collaborate.
Interesting. How long did you spend in pre-production? Can you describe the process? For example, what steps did you take to get from a locked script to a movie set?
We spent about 6 months in pre-production.
We were all working full-time jobs at the time, so were were only able to work 10-20 hours/week, which is why it took so long. You have location scouting, casting, rehearsals, meetings with every department, discussions about effects, discussions about lighting methods, etc.
Really, it’s a bunch of meetings to make sure everyone is on the same page.
The location is perfect: dark country roads, barren trees, a snow-dusted clearing… how did you find it? Did you have to get permission to shoot there?
We set our sights on the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania due to their proximity to New York City (about an hour), the inexpensive prices, and the look of the landscape (overgrown woods with hilly terrain).
I spent a lot of time with Google Maps Satellite identifying possible locations, and then followed up with several in-person trips to the mountains, simply driving around. Having a camera with a GPS built in (Canon 6D or iPhone) is incredibly helpful during location scouting.
I identified a site that would be perfect, but it was several miles from the nearest services (electricity, heat, stores, etc). When you do a shoot that requires a significant number of people on set (even our relatively small crew of about 16), it’s necessary to have a place where people can eat; where they can get warm; where they can sit to do make-up, paperwork, or DIT, etc., etc. Also, renting and running generators becomes a large expense when you’re in the middle of nowhere.
So, even though I’d found the perfect mountaintop location for the film, we actually chose a different location to shoot at.
I eventually found this new location by making contact with a real estate broker. She knew properties in the region that were up for sale, and properties that are up for sale are more likely to be unoccupied, as well as have nice location photos already taken for you!
It was on the property of an old bed and breakfast, meaning that we had production office space, kitchen, dining, warming, makeup, DIT, and electricity within a few minutes walk (and few stinger runs) of set. A simple trip to the location and friendly in-person chat with the location owner got us permission to film there.
Never underestimate the power of face-to-face contact!
The snow looks great! It really adds to the darkness and desolation of the setting. Is that real snow falling, or did you “make” the snow? If you made it, how did you make it? I noticed “Snow Techs” in the credits…
We both created the snow onsite using specialized “snow machines” and also supplemented it with CGI snow.
Because cinema is a 2D medium, we were able to hit our subject of the scene (the actor or the truck) with a thin line of snow, but it surprisingly didn’t read as shallow as it actually was – the snow really only covered about 5 feet in diameter. Additional CGI snow in front and to the sides created more depth.
How many shooting days – or rather, nights – did you have? How many setups did you average per night? In general, how long was a production night?
We shot over 3 nights, one of which was a barebones crew “pickup” night. Because of the sun, we only had about 12 hours each night, so even with pre-rig, our days were never more than 14 hours.
I don’t recall precisely how many setups we got done each night, but I think it was something around 10 or 12. It was less than we were expecting, due to the difficulty of working with the moving truck, and the difficulty of lighting at night.
What did you shoot on? Why? What sorts of lenses did you use?
We shot on Red Epic, simply because that’s the camera we had access to for free.
We shot on Elite Anamorphic lenses. We knew we wanted the film to have a cinematic look, and the 2.35 ratio was already built-in. Elites are older lenses with a lot of imperfections, which means that they rent pretty cheaply. Since we were on a low budget anyway, we embraced the character of the lenses and used them as a way to give the film a slightly otherworldly look.
Additionally, anamorphics are well known for their flares. Since we knew that the truck’s headlights would be flaring in the lenses quite a lot, it felt like a good choice.
The first time I saw the Wide on the clearing, at 02:13, it took my breath away. How did you light it?
I’m also curious to hear about the photography in the truck. Did your actors actually drive, or is there some special effects wizardry going on?
We lit the clearing with two dozen or so very “normal” 250 watt tungsten lights, hung from 8 “menace arms” in the forest. Then, we stretched a large “silk” below all of them – indeed, probably the largest diffusion any of us had ever used! It hung so low that in the Wide we actually had to paint it out at the top.
It was a cheap setup, but I will admit that the time it took to setup may not have been worth it, and spending a bit more on lighting would have enabled us to spend more time shooting and less time lighting. One of the few times when spending more money actually saves time.
For the driving scenes, we built probably one of the most ridiculous contraptions I’ve ever seen for a film:
We threw “moonlight” down from the top of a truck using softboxes strapped to the top of the truck. We lit the surrounding trees with tungsten PARCANS that shone from the rear bumper, and then we used mini Kinos and Litepanels inside the truck. We then had Jared, our actor playing Isaac, drive this contraption around the woods at 3am! It was ridiculous, but it worked.
After all of this lighting work, we only used this setup for the front Two-shot. The head on Closeups and Profile shots were actually done with a greenscreen:
This was one of the hardest things for us to decide on. Ultimately, we opted for this arrangement because we wanted a handheld-style camera for these Closeup shots instead of the locked-off shots that we’d get with a rig. A process trailer would have solved this problem, but our budget combined with the narrow, rough roads limited this option.
Another solution is to do a “poor man’s process” trailer, but because our characters were ostensibly in the middle of nowhere, there were no street lights to fake motion, meaning that the gag would have been too hard to sell.
Wow. On a different note, I’d love to hear about how you worked with your actors. Did you run rehearsals before production? If so, why, and how did you approach the process? How, if at all, did it prepare you and your actors for the set?
Any advice for beginning directors struggling to communicate with their actors? How do you get what you want as a director?
We had two or three rehearsals in my apartment prior to production. The writer, Mike, was also there to help out and collaborate – Mike always adds a lot and has good experience working with actors, so he’s an incredible asset to have in the room. It might be a bit more difficult collaborating with a writer on set where time is crunched, but in a rehearsal where you have time to try things different ways, if you can put your ego in your pocket for a moment, it’s great.
There isn’t a great tradition of rehearsals in films – many simply work it out onset. But it’s actually one of my favorite parts of directing! Rehearsals really allow you to explore and get things right prior to getting to set, so when you’re onset, you can focus on the inevitable technical and physical problems that arise, instead of experiment with your actors.
Working with actors can be intimidating, and humorously enough, my advice is pretty cliche – literally you need to help your actors work out “what is [their] motivation?”
Said another way, what do they want in the scene? What are they trying to accomplish, and how are they doing it? For every line. Every line of dialogue is an action, and hopefully, the characters’ actions in some way conflict.
If you have two characters in a scene who want different things, that’s really all you need for drama. If you find yourself saying “they don’t want anything”, or both characters in a scene want exactly the same thing, then you’ve got a problem with your script, and you need to rewrite in order to add tension and action.
Even inaction can be action when written correctly.
The sound design for the creature sends chills up my spine. In fact, overall, the aural world of The Offering is impressive in its subtlety and detail. How did you approach the sound design process?
Specifically, how did you collaborate with your sound designer, both practically and creatively?
This is a great example of hiring someone at the right time who has a vested interest in the success of your project. Our sound designer was a great sound guy who was looking for a piece that would help his reel stand out. Because our project was built around sound, he was willing to take it on for a small fee.
You’ll often find that when you’re trying something unique, new, or out of the ordinary, crew is much more willing to work hard on a small budget.
The ethereal, almost Vangelis-like score that floats in and out of the film is tremendously effective, as is your selection of “After You’ve Gone” for when the father prepares to leave.
How did you collaborate with your composer? More generally, in your opinion, how should a director collaborate with a composer? Must he/she speak the “language” of music in order to communicate effectively, or is it possible to communicate in other ways?
My collaboration with our composer, Sam Estes, involved the following:
- Show up at Sam’s studio at 5 PM.
- Record clapping and singing for a CBS spot his company was making.
- Drink Whisky.
- Order BBQ in.
- Drink more Whisky.
- Begin scoring.
- Finish scoring by midnight.
This is an unusual process, but because The Offering is short, the score is electronic and sparse, and Sam is great at what he does, we were able to do everything in his studio in only one night. We were really going more for subtle, mood-enhancing music than a full score.
I have spoken with Sam a bunch about communication, and even he concedes that using a temp track is the best way, on a low budget, to transfer ideas.
On huge, big budget movies with A-list composers, many will actually write a “suite” or “sketchbook” of musical ideas that are then mocked up on the computer, and the picture editors will use these as temp tracks. Once there’s picture lock, the pieces are edited and orchestrated to the action, and the film is actually “scored” and recorded with a live orchestra. However, this requires a lot of time, MIDI mockup skills, and of course, money, so temp tracks are what we lower budget filmmakers are left with.
It’s important to stay open if the composer comes up with something new, but as director, referencing temp music and other pieces you like is imperative. Composers are used to getting bad or inexperienced direction, so don’t be shy if you have to say “I don’t know” or describe a piece of music with odd words.
But, don’t be a jerk about it, and do try to learn your composer’s language as well – that’s what being a director is about – communicating with your team. A simple start might be to get to know general instrument sounds; it’s pretty easy to do that will help you out a lot. Start with the Peter and the Wolf suite!
Well said, Ryan. How did you approach the editing process? What challenges, both practical and creative, did you run into along the way?
On a related note, did you storyboard The Offering? More generally, what was your approach to coverage? How did this affect the editing process?
We handed the footage over to our editor, Dale Arroyo, and let him take the first pass. From there, we collaborated as I gave notes on each subsequent revision. I can’t remember any specific challenges we faced along the way outside of the normal “Oh, these shots don’t match!”, or, “I wish we had gotten this angle” discussions.
I did storyboard this film. Jordan Hassay, a friend of Mike’s and I’s, actually took a pass at the storyboards as an exercise, years before Mike’s major rewrite – they were a fun springboard that I used when brainstorming my director versions. I do find storyboarding very helpful for communicating with cast and crew.
Since we had very little time on set, our coverage wasn’t very complete. We pretty much shot what I knew we were going to use. I would rather spend my time doing more takes so the actors can nail it, or doing more complex setups, instead of shooting a million angles. This requires a lot of thought beforehand as well, though, and a good script supervisor to make sure that you shoot everything.
For the driving scene, the coverage was a bit more traditional, simply because shooting in a car like that necessitates traditional angles in order to capture performances.
If you don’t mind my asking, what was the film’s budget? How much was for production, and how much was for post?
The budget was around $14,000 in the end. We used about $10.5k on Production and $3.5k on post.
The reason we were able to put so much money into production was because we have really good friends in the post world who kindly volunteered to work on the film during their free time.
What are you working on these days?
I’m currently working as a documentary and commercial director and producer, as well as honing several writing projects for TV and Film that I’m excited about!
Thanks for sharing your experience and perspective with us here at Lights, Ryan. The Offering is an inspiration – we’ll be keeping an eye out for your next film!
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