Welcome to a new series where the folks at In The Mouth of Dorkness (including Film School Rejects own Brad Gullickson) and I sit down with small budget, indie filmmakers. Special thanks on this episode to Lisa Gullickson and Darren Smith.
We’ve been talking with small budget film makers about their processes, their challenges, and their successes. For a full perspective, we want to include production companies in the conversation. Why would we want to talk to corporate stooges, you ask? Well, for starters, the most common question we see about small budget film making is: How do I get money?
Production companies aren’t just money stooges along for the thrill of doling out cash like drunken sailors. Yes, it’s true. They are investors. But, y’all, good production companies bring more to the set than those dollar dollar bills. To which end, the second most common question in small budget film making is: How do I do that? Where “that” can be just about anything.
Experience is everything. If money makes things happen, then experience makes the right things happen in the right order. And if you can find a production company in the business of helping first or second time filmmakers make movies, well. That’s a bingo. Am I saying that correctly?
Up to the table today are two of the cats from Snowfort Pictures: Travis Stevens and David Lawson Jr.
The name Snowfort Pictures is evocative of children at play. And that’s a fairly apt description of these two fellows. Travis Stevens is the founder and CEO of the company. David Lawson Jr. is the Head of Production. They’re clever, and they clearly have a mind for what they’re doing. More importantly, you can hear the joy they take in their work.
I grew up in Florida, so my memories of youthful snow days are entirely borrowed from Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. But, I get what’s captured in this name: beautiful snowy days with enjoyment derived entirely from the power of imagination. Sometimes, the free-roaming imagination of a knowledgeable mind gets you ghoulish and grotesque snowscapes of murdered snow-families.
So, on that note, Snowfort’s first production was 2010’s A Horrible Way To Die, which was also Adam Wingard’s first film with Simon Barrett. It’s a gnarly exploration of alcoholism, psychopathy, serial killers, and love. The story is populated by broken characters whose vices have long since ceased to be thrilling and have become compulsions which dominate their miserable existences. The narrative takes an interesting approach and the camera work suggests a voyeuristic look at the self-destruction of these people.
More recently, Snowfort collaborated on Trash Fire, which is the blackest of comedies. You ever watch someone else’s failures and feel good about your success in that department? The relationship on display in this movie made my wife and I unreasonably proud of our own. My goodness, that flick is dark. You ever see a movie that combines a seizure and sex? It’s funny. But, like, in a way that maybe my laughter means I’m damaged? Teenage Cocktail is a love story gone wildly wrong in the age of internet pornography and good old fashioned terrible teenage choice making. Do you remember when you were young and made a new friend? Do you remember falling in love? Do you remember doing internet pornography together for cash? Did your teenage love story dissolve in mayhem and violence? Because, this movie knows what that’s like.
Their catalogue is comprised of good genre movies, but each film takes an approach or uses a framework that makes it stand out from a typical entry. They may be very grim in tone or particular in subject, but they’re playful in style. All of their films have a distinct voice.
Passion and voice are interrelated. And, passion is so important for forming creative collaborations. Stevens shares that he’s got to dig you or your idea to work with you. Obviously, both is best. But, that spark has to be there. Because, here’s the thing, if they don’t vibe creatively or friendship-wise, that can damage the collaboration. And that relationship is particularly essential when you allow that Snowfort deliberately sets out to work with first or second time film makers.
Remember before how I was talking about the value of experience? Stevens and Lawson believe in the value of that unique voice. But, it’s hard to foster that with the realities of low budget film weighing down the dreamers and philosophers. Snowfort sees part of their mission as preserving the creative bubble around their directors. And they are ready to hustle to do it.
I use that word in the fullest sense. It’s about working hard to protect that bubble. Hustle is also about knowing the angles. Experience brings hard earned knowledge about the realities of small budget film making. They can chime in early on to help prevent a simple mistake that will compound impossibly by the time post-production comes around.
Speaking of voice, they discuss their decision to proactively seek out voices from different backgrounds. Representation in cinema is hugely important to how we process things as a culture and men have been dominating the mic for forever. Snowfort supported XX, a horror anthology with every segment directed by women. It just had its Sundance premiere. They also helped to make Buster’s Mal Heart, directed by Sarah Adina Smith. And they’ve got a documentary called Concrete Futuro by Jade Porter headed our way. All of which I’m really excited to see.
So, what is the role of a producer? To paraphrase T.I., the folks at Snowfort Pictures are Ready For Whatever. How many producers does it take to remove a 300 pound dead boar from a film set? How many arms have to be broken before you realize you just met your best friend? Is it terrifying to make a movie? What’s it like to have a business model that relies predominately on first time efforts? If you’re working in a safe space are you even making art? And, since we aren’t being safe, how do we make a car chase appear larger than life?
Stevens and Lawson are candid about their role in film making, what drives them as producers, and where they find joy in this business. Film making is an adventure and they’re ready for it. Get excited! And get to listening.