Filmmaker, Johnette Duff knows a thing or two about ups and downs. Not only does her latest project take place on an elevator, but she is one skillfully crafted, well-versed professional who knows how to keep her cool while working around unpredictable filmmaking challenges. Here’s her journey on how she made a house, not only a home, but a place where her film manifested.
Miss Duff says her mission for her latest film, UP&DOWN, was “to make a quality low-budget film showcasing the talent we have here in Texas.” Sounds like an easy task, but the undertaking was rather complex.
Her days of producing her dreams started early. She says she has always been a writer. She penned her first book at ten and has written three non-fiction titles since then. She found her way to film school in the mid-90s. (The Blair Witch Boys were in the class ahead of her.) Duff moved to LA for a couple of years after placing in a prestigious screenwriting contest. A death in the family brought her back home to Texas.
Originally, Duff didn’t set out to do this particular film. She seemed to stumble upon the idea while developing a film about the Big Bopper (of "Chantilly Lace" fame, who died in the plane crash with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens On the Day the Music Died.) After having resistance from financiers because she had never done a feature, she shifted gears and project scales.
Duff redirected her attention altogether and the notion for the current film came about in November of 2007. “I wanted to do a low-budget feature to prove I could do it - and the idea of using essentially one location is what allowed me to do this.” For Duff, the idea for that setting actually came to her while at the American Film Market in Santa Monica. She says, “Watching filmmakers, actors and buyers actually do business in the elevators while young men in black wearing headsets do crowd control,” is the mental visual she drew from.
For UP&DOWN, she describes her role as the “visionkeeper”. She says for several reasons, she “originally flirted with shooting in Utah.” This is where her lead actor and two of the directors she was interested in resided. She also mentions, “there’s an incredible amount of talent there due to the proximity of Sundance.”
In late December 2008, Duff took a trip to Utah. There she did a reading of the first draft as well as scouted talent. She says after sending the script out to gentle readers who incorporated ideas, she set a start date of August 2009. In no time, the production was taking place.
“With pick-up shooting in October, we were done with principal photography in under a year from idea to having it in the can,” recalls Duff. “We shot on HD Red Camera, so actually it's on a hard drive!”
As visionkeeper, she wrote, produced and focused on overseeing every element of the film. Although, she wore many hats, Duff tips one of them off to a director she truly believed in and appreciated. “My director Jonathan Carbonaro is a god.” She shares that although she discussed the project with numerous directors, Carbonaro “is one in a million.” Carbonaro also served as the editor of the film and also found time and creativity to write two songs for the project.
“As the average film takes approximately seven years from start to finish, my cast and crew did hero work,” says Duff when focusing on the process.
Looking back on the film’s early development days, Duff remembers how she and Carbonaro began. “He drove down from Austin to campaign for the project - spent three hours taking about my characters as if they were real people. He shared the vision and had the technical expertise to pull it off. The film would not exist without him,” she says.
Duff has special qualities of her own that brought the film to life - take her knack for balancing simplicity with thinking outside of the box. They shot the film in her apartment after building a replica of an elevator in her living room. Although you may not see the grand atmosphere of Texas based on location alone, Duff recognizes it in her film. “We have incredible [Texas] talent in front of and behind the camera. I want the world to know about it!”
Killing several birds with one stone seemed to also be a production strategy for the filmmaker. “I also tried to run the production office and catering out of my home office and kitchen. We all knew this was going to be overwhelming and challenging but we didn't have the money to do it differently.”
Although Duff says she still get remarks on how they had the best food of any low-budget film anyone had worked on, she jokes about how it all nearly killed her.
There were a couple of other events that almost sent her over the edge. She had trouble finding PAs and the lead actress quit 8 days into the shoot. Although time and money were loss and re-shoots were unexpected, her crew came through for the production. “We all came together again and worked together for a common goal against a situation that was devastating to all of us.” She says it made them a closer, and more determined unit.
Duff also says to the aspiring filmmaker, “ALWAYS have a Plan B for every cast and crew member. Trust your instincts if someone seems to not be in sync with the project.”
The final version of her film Premiered in Houston April 2010. This month, her film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival .
What does she want people to gain from seeing UP&DOWN? She simply states, “a small character-driven film can serve an even better function. Stories are medicine - I want people to find escapism, humor, diversion, poignancy.”
You can view her other scripts at www.texasscreenwriter.com.