Interview with Mark Raso – “Under”

| February 4, 2014

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There are many reactions to our featured short films, but I’ll briefly share a personal one. On a Monday night, I sat down to watch the Film School Shorts premiere with both my wife and, visiting from Mexico, my father. Neither one of them had seen Under, but as soon as we started watching the film, there was a stark silence in the room. After the film, my wife admitted the film almost gave her a panic attack, evidenced by the finger indentations she had made on her armrests. My father turned to me and said, “Bruta, la película.”

Made at Columbia University, Mark Raso’s Under kicked off our second season with a bang and is now available to watch online. Over email, we caught up with Mark to talk about elk (note to my East San Jose self: it’s NOT a deer), his ambitious shoot, his newest feature Copenhagen and the creative collective known as Fidelio.

WATCH:

 

Hi Mark. Can you tell a little bit about what inspired Under?

An article I read about a couple that perished in an avalanche inspired the film.  They were discovered a few meters from each other with both having died alone. Although that is not what Under is about, it was the genesis of the story and brought me into that world.

Give us film geeks some inside info on how you shot some of the more insane elements of the film. You’ve got an avalanche, actors under snow, a deer to wrangle, a helicopter shot. I mean, it goes without saying: the film has serious production value. 

This was the first time that I didn’t inhibit my writing with the concerns of how to pull it off in production, although the question of “how” was the one raised the most in pre-production by fellow students or faculty. But personally figuring out how we would do it was the most exciting and creative part in making the film. I explored a world that I had no knowledge of and found it incredibly rewarding. For the avalanche, I found a VFX person and we did a stop motion shot of a miniature snowmobile flying towards the camera.  He then did 3D compositions to create the avalanche and snow spill and he composited it over a plate shot we had.

Under Production Still

The helicopter shot was similar trickery; I ended up getting a free stock footage shot and then the post house Redlab, where I did all my post work, managed to composite in a tiny little snowmobile driving across the image. These two shots combined cost about $600 in our budget, but added infinite Production Value. As for the actors under the snow, we built a “studio” in a garage in the middle of February; we basically built and filled a giant box with snow, let it sit for a week, took off one panel and then dug into it with a shovel. To their credit the actors got right in there and pushed through it.

Under Production Still

In terms of the deer, or rather elk, that takes patience and food. Every time you see an animal in a film, notice how they are always eating; that’s how you lure them to where you need them. It took us an entire day to get three shots of the elk that lasted about 30 seconds on screen. And one shot, of the elk on the road in front of the car, was VFX work by Redlab.

Can you tell us about your budget and how you raised funds?

The budget was pretty high for a short film, we had about 60K. We got various grants as well as a lot of equipment and camera sponsored through programs at William F. Whites and PS in Toronto that covered most of it. The rest of the budget was independently financed.

What were your biggest challenges in making Under, other than avalanches and freezing weather?

By far the biggest challenge was the rain that came on day three of the shoot that basically washed all the snow away. We had to wrap that day after about 6 hours. The following day we moved to our back-up location 2 hours north of the city, which was basically a large snow bank. We had to introduce green screens and composite mountains in after the fact.

Under Production Still

There is one scene were we shot the one side in our first location, and the reverse is all shot in the back-up location the next day. But nobody notices, so I guess we did our job well. 

Tell us about casting, including getting Michael Hogan (aka Col Tigh) to come onboard.

When sitting with a casting director you make up your “dream lists” of cast, and being a huge Battlestar Galactica fan I had Michael Hogan at the top of the list. We decided to take a shot and offered him the role. We lucked out as it worked out in his schedule that he was going to be in Toronto at that time and he liked the script enough that he decided to do it. I know he really loves the final film as well so that is very special to me as I am a huge fan of his work and was delighted to have him.

Actor Michael Hogan. Under.

Actor Michael Hogan.

I always liked Wayne Wilcox in everything he had done in Film, TV and Theatre, so I we went out to him with an offer and he jumped on it. Zoe Winters came on board after a month long casting process. She just nailed it in the room and continued to bring it on set.

Was there anything about Under that you doubted while making it?

Not so much while making it, but I doubted a lot before we decided to make it. I felt like it was either going to be really good, or really bad, depending on how we pulled it off technically and of course the performances.  Coming to grips that I might make a stinker of a film but still going out there and taking that risk was the real hurdle I had to overcome.

Actor Wayne Wilcox

Actor Wayne Wilcox

Once I made the decision, I did everything in my power to make sure we did the absolute best we could so that I would have zero regrets after the fact if it didn’t work out.

If you could change one aspect of Under, what would it be? What part of Under are you most proud of?

I know the film has flaws but I have come to appreciate the process of making it so much that I am not sure I would change anything. But in terms of the script, her drug addiction could have been a more rounded story element.

Under

The part I am most proud of is how fun it was to make, despite the stress of trying to pull off something so ambitious. I don’t think anybody ever felt we were in over our heads even though that could have been a very real concern.

Let’s talk about your directorial method: how do you work with your actors to get great performances?

The most important aspect to getting good performances is casting correctly. So I spend a lot of time there and really make sure I am 100% behind and excited about who we’ve cast. Once that is settled, I like to try and create a comfortable, honest environment were the actor feels safe to really go for it. Actors have their process and it’s important to respect that.

Under Production Still

It’s also important that we are pushing every scene as far as it can go and some times to do that you need to go the long way around. But as long as there is mutual respect and we are going towards a common goal I think there is lots of room for magic. I like to trust my gut on this, if it doesn’t feel right or feels off then we don’t have it and we don’t move on.

Under

Even though I might not be able to articulate exactly what is wrong, sometimes engaging in that conversation with the actor is enough to crack open the scene and figure out where it needs to go to feel right. But in reality at the end of the day all the credit needs to go to the actors, they are the lynchpin of all movies and no matter how good the script or how good the directing, a movie will fall flat if the performances are not working and believable.

Writing: once you have an idea, do you have any methods or rituals to complete the screenwriting process?

Yes, I get the first draft done quickly and then rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.  For just about everything I have written the final draft has about a 10% resemblance to the first draft, but I find that this is the best way for a story to grow and live, and for me to really get to know the characters.  It is very hard to say I am done with a script; I need to be exhausted with it.

Under

And I would say that although Under is a 23 page script, we wrote at least 50-60 pages of material to get that 23 pages right.  The tricky part is pushing forward after you have a script good enough to shoot, with hopes of making it even better.

What motivated/inspired you to write a character that struggled with substance abuse?

I wish I had an exciting answer for you, but it really came down to the themes I was looking to explore in the film, specifically survival. And I thought if we are going to end the film with someone who needs to choose “life” when it really matters, she should be coming from a place where she has been choosing “death” up to this point. And substance abuse fit the mold.

Actor Zoe Winters

Actor Zoe Winters

It also served as a catalyst for the journey to begin. It made so much sense but then again I feel it is the one aspect of the story that is perhaps not as strong as the rest. It is a good example of an element that entered the story late in the writing process, something that would not have been there if we didn’t keep pushing. But yet it needed more work and would have improved if we had a bit more time. 

Tell me about the Student Academy Award experience. Did you see any tangible benefit from it?

It came out of nowhere. I had shot the film in February 2011 and had cut it by April 2011 so I had missed the cutoff for the Student Academy Awards for that year. It played at the Columbia University Film Festival that year, where it did okay but was not a featured film.  I submitted it to a bunch of festivals with little luck. So I was pretty down about the entire thing because I believed it was a good film.

Oscar®-nominated actor Greg Kinnear and Mark Raso, winner of the gold medal in the narrative film category for Under.

Oscar®-nominated actor Greg Kinnear and Mark Raso, winner of the gold medal in the narrative film category for Under.

I submitted to the Student Academy Awards the following year and was shocked when it won. It catapulted the film as it suddenly got into a lot of festivals and personally it connected me with my agent and manager who I am super happy with. It changed my career in many ways and for that “I would like to thank the Academy…”

You completed your first feature-length film Copenhagen, which is now hitting the festival circuit. Can you tell us a bit about it and what it was like to wrangle a feature?

Perfect segue: Copenhagen came out of the original disappointment that I felt with Under not getting onto festivals. I went back to Columbia and was supposed to make a second film but in the New Year I felt like I had moved on from shorts so I decided to turn Under into my thesis (it was originally my non-thesis) and graduate.

Copenhagen

Copenhagen

I started planning for Copenhagen, which I wrote at Columbia, to shoot that summer (2012) after I graduated. We were going to shoot it for less than Underbut six weeks prior to principal photography I won the Student Academy Award. That helped attract investors at the last minute and our budget jumped. (It was still a micro budget). It also helped bring in crew, cast, etc.

Learn anything from Under than benefited you on Copenhagen?

Under was infinitely more difficult than Copenhagen. The crew on Under was bigger and everything was done on such a bigger scale, in the dead of winter. So in a way having pulled off Under made me very comfortable attacking Copenhagen.

Copenhagen Production Still

I wasn’t really nervous because of what we did on Under. In Copenhagen we were shooting in the summer, mostly outdoors, the shooting days were shorter, and we were surrounded by friends and it was overall very chill (To be fair my producers probably have a different view of it than I do ☺ ) So I think Under more than prepared me. In terms of the longer shoot, oddly enough I found that after about a week (which was the length of the Under shoot) is when I found my groove and rhythm on Copenhagen and it actually got easier the longer we went.

Why Denmark?

I had lived in Copenhagen and my wife, who was also a producer on the film, is from there. It had to be there.

Variety compared Copenhagen to Lost in Translation? Apt comparison or pigeon-holing?

Pigeon-holing. But that tends to be the best way to get people to understand what type of film they are seeing, so it doesn’t bother me. In various publications it has been compared to Lost in Translation, Before Sunrise, Manhattan, and Oslo August 31st, which to me says that Copenhagen is its own film.

What major differences have you observed between Canadian, American, and European filmmakers and industries?


I think the industries have major differences that come from the top down. The U.S. is a moneymaking system, it’s a business so it has to be, and because of that people are more likely to take a chance on a big idea or something fresh. The Canadian System, run through Telefilm is about checking boxes and as long as you check those boxes there is job security for execs and less reason to take risks. The gross of the film doesn’t matter as much so you have the same people making films year in and year out.

Copenhagen Production Still

And I think the Danish system is somewhere in between, where the industry is run through certain institutions but there is plenty of room for new talent and fresh ideas. But in terms of Filmmakers I feel we are all very similar. We are obviously influenced by our surroundings so the stories change, but at the end of it we are all artists trying to tell stories and move people.

I have seen your early film Brand New Day, which is just bonkers. Any plans to return to the musical form, with or without a herpes theme?

I am so happy you saw that film!!! I had a lot of fun making a musical, I learned a lot about musicals in the prep work and learned to appreciate them way more than I ever have. But I think that Brand New Day was a one off thing, I don’t really have aspirations to make musicals, unless it was conceived completely different.

Switching gears, when did you first know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

Tough question, I always loved and wanted to work in film. I just didn’t know in what capacity. It was probably when I was around 16 or 17 that I knew I wanted to be a director. I kind of moved from acting to writing/directing plays. And then I saw the movie Se7en, and was blown away with the power of something like the opening credits. How the visuals of that set a mood and tone, and it kind of went beyond “the play” aspect of a film and become about the entire package cinema offers. Not to mention the closing credits running in reverse creeped me out. Just powerful stuff that tapped into all aspects that film offers. I really wanted to do that, to be a part of that.

Are there any other artists in your family?

Yeah, my brother Joseph [Raso] is an extremely talented writer/director. He is the creator and writer of the sitcom Seed that is wrapping up its second season right now in Canada, and will premiere in the U.S. on CW this summer. He also works in film a lot and is a brilliant writer.

SEED Poster

My cousin Daniel Paterson is also an amazing photographer. He just had a show in New York where he displayed some of his work.  He converted a car trailer into a giant pinhole Camera Obscura and took photos all over the North East. The negatives are these massive 8 feet by 4 feet photos that are just incredible. He would be inside the camera as the photos were being exposed; it is some of the most interesting work I have ever seen. 

Any other jobs you’ve had prior to filmmaking?

Yes, when I was younger I worked at my mothers business before she sold it, which was a naturopathic and homeopathic wholesale company. I also worked construction for about 4 years doing mostly manual labor, which was very rewarding in it’s own way. There are a lot of similarities between a construction foreman and a film director, so that knowledge really came in handy once I started working on film sets.

What do you obsess about and what keeps you up at night?

I used to obsess about watching sports but I’m finding less and less time to get emotionally invested in something I have no control over, so that has become more of a mental break and hobby. My work keeps me up at night; my ideas and stories seem to really grow when I’m in that relaxed place right before I go down for the night. The message being I need to try to get to that place more often, and not just when I’m ready to crash.

Talk to us about your Columbia University experience. Were you considering any other schools?

I applied late to film school (a month after the deadline) so I emailed 3 schools; AFI, NYU and Columbia asking for extensions. Columbia was the only one that granted one, so I only applied there and was very fortunate to get in.

Having said that it was my first choice, as they focus on things I find to be the most important aspects of directing, which are understanding story and working with actors. It would have been my first choice regardless. The experience was more than I could have hoped for as the quality of work and knowledge from both my professors and my peers was off the charts.

What is your advice to prospective film students picking a school?

Do your research and what type of filmmaker you wish to be and focus on a school that offers that. But know that no matter what school you choose, you are only going to get out of it what you put in, so the impetus is on you to maximize your experience to its fullest. And definitely go in with a plan, it is the pre-production phase to your film career.  

Fidelio Films: what is it and how did you dapper men form?

Fidelio is a collective that was formed with 3 other like-minded students at Columbia. We are all writer/directors and we tend to focus on similar story telling ideas. It is a support group, a writer’s room, and a film company that ensures that whatever the project, we are pushing each other to get the most out of it and make the best movie possible. The other guys (Mauro Mueller, David Figueroa, and Mauricio Leiva-Cock) all came to Copenhagen with me when we were shooting and in general we set up weekly meetings, push each others work and work as a unit to get each others projects off the ground.

Fidelio Films: (L to R) Mauricio Leiva-Cock, David Figueroa, Mauro Mueller and Mark Raso

Fidelio Films: (L to R) Mauricio Leiva-Cock, David Figueroa, Mauro Mueller and Mark Raso

The success of it has been amazing so far. We won back-to-back Student Academy Awards, along with a huge list of other awards and accomplishments and we are prepping our third feature already, only 2 years out of film school.

What’s next?

There is a lot going on. I am attached to a few projects, included the 2013 Nicholls Award winning script Killers about a 40-something hit woman who takes a job in her hometown only to find her estranged mother dying of cancer. Things get interesting when her mother asks her to euthanize her. There is also an Under-esque script I am attached to, as well I am writing a grounded sci-fi that is set up with a cool company in LA, and a few other projects I am pushing for. We will see, a lot needs to break right for a film to be made, but I am excited about the projects and think they will all make for excellent films.

Watch the film:

Mark Raso is a Writer/Director based out of Los Angeles and Toronto.

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