The Indie Director, Writer, and Producer of 'Unspoken' Talks About Bringing the Film to Life
As preparation for a forthcoming review of Marc Clebanoff’s film, Unspoken, I sat down with the writer, producer, and director himself to ask him a few questions about the film. Prior to the interview, Marc and I communicated by e-mail several times and I was quite impressed by his tenacity, energy, and professionalism. Marc had mailed me the DVD screener of Unspoken as well as some very interesting supplemental information including cast and crew bios, and a one sheet that includes all pertinent project and story details.
Clebanoff is a University of Southern California alum and Los Angeles resident having grown up in the area. Clebanoff is an entrepreneur having started Odyssey Motion Pictures (2004) as a platform to launch Unspoken and MC Camera Works, a full service resource for independent filmmakers, including an equipment rental division, located in the San Fernando Valley just outside of Los Angeles.
Having just watched Unspoken, and knowing that it could be construed as a controversial film, I asked Clebanoff to explain his intentions in making the film. “There were two intentions with the film,” he said. “There were the business intentions and then there were the creative intentions. I have a project that I have been working on for a handful of years called, The Distance. It’s a very commercial, very mainstream film. It only has about a million-dollar budget, but it has some very prominent actors involved and it is to be my break out piece. I had investors on the fence for a long time that were very intrigued and ready to go on the project, but were apprehensive in the fact that I had yet to direct a feature. That was the reason that I decided to take a step back and do Unspoken. I wanted to do something on a smaller scale that I could take to them and say, ‘Hey, look, now I’ve done it. Now, let’s go with the bigger project.’ That was the first original intention; it was supposed to be a stepping-stone. Once I really got into it, obviously it became a monster of its own. The creative intentions kind of developed as I worked on it.”
Seemingly very enthused about his “creative intentions” in making Unspoken, Clebanoff went on to say, “One of the things that I’ve noticed is very predominant in big budget mainstream filmmaking is ‘end of the world’, apocalyptic films. I wanted to do something that explored the human side of that, because nobody has yet to do it. There’s everything from Independence Day to The Day After Tomorrow that are great because they’re big showcases for special effects and the technology, but nobody’s ever stopped to make a movie about what these people would actually go through if they were put into those circumstances.”
Asked about the film influences of Unspoken, Clebanoff said, “One film that I love to compare Unspoken to is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope with Jimmy Stewart, which is one of his most brilliant movies you’ll ever see. It was based on a play, the whole thing took place in one room, there were about half a dozen characters… The other one is a Richard Linklater film called Tape with Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke. It was based on a play; there were only 3 actors, one motel room, and a very dark subject matter.”
The beginning of Unspoken is a narration by Chad Everett (Mulholland Drive) that poses several philosophical ideas. “Philosophy was definitely on my mind to an extent,” Clebanoff said of the opening. “I had written that introduction several years ago and it (Unspoken) grew out of this monologue that took modern day common theories and just looked at them from a different point of view. I tried to take ideas that a lot of people would have at least heard of or recognized, like the butterfly effect, or the one that says, ‘One thousand monkeys typing for a thousand years, eventually one of them will hit all of the right keys in all of the right order and turn out a literary masterpiece. My idea was to take those theories a step further by saying, ‘A thousand monkeys typing for a thousand years may turn out Gone with the Wind, but they are just as likely to turn out Mein Kampf.’”
When Clebanoff was asked about his actors and their take on the content, he said, “As far as the content, when they read it, they were taken aback. They knew right away that it would be a very intense process, probably the most intense thing they’ve ever had to deal with as actors. But they were amazing… I’d done shorts with them but I wanted to do something really significant that could help me, but could also help launch their careers as well. Every person in that film more or less has the potential to be a star.”
Bill Sadler (The Shawshank Redemption, Die Hard 2, The Green Mile), an extremely well known character actor, plays a key role in Unspoken. According to Clebanoff, “[Sadler] showed up on day one, and I had never met him until the day before that. I had cut the deal for Justin Allen, the lead in the film, and originally I knew there was one scene in the film I wanted a major actor for… The role that I got Sadler for was the one where I wanted someone recognizable.”However, Sadler was not Clebanoff’s original actor he had in mind for the role. “I originally wrote it for another actor who I had at my disposal, but as the bit fleshed out I realized he wasn’t going to be right for it. When it was all said and done, I asked, ‘Who is realistic for the part, and who would I get if I could have anybody?’ Sadler was at the top of my list.”
Familiar with the actors numerous roles, Clebanoff set out to contact Sadler, which proved more challenging than he expected. “I was chasing my tail for a week trying to find out who his agent was. All of the information that I found was out dated. Finally I found out that not only was he at the same agency as my lead, but he had the same agent. I was thinking that this was meant to be. I mean, what are the chances?
Clebanoff was already impressed with Sadler’s talent, but respected him more when he was willing to work for less than he would normally get for a big budget picture. “I could only afford to pay Sadler one, maybe two days. Luckily he turned out to very much be an artist, as opposed to looking for the next part for the quick buck. He was going to be out in LA taking meetings for pilot season, so it was killing two birds with one stone.” Because of the budget, however, they could only get Sadler for one day. “It was difficult because we shot eight pages, but it just goes to show you that if you have an actor as good as Sadler, he’s going to be able to handle it. He didn’t flinch at it. He came in Friday night and did a run through. He then came in Saturday morning for the first day of production and he was doing five to six minute takes flawlessly.”
Wondering what it was like for a young director to deal with actors varying in such a wide range of experience and age, I asked Clebanoff what it was like to work with Chase Louis Mayo, a child actor. Clebanoff immediately said, “The main young actors (Justin Allen, Matt Siegan, Ashley Jensen) helped me a lot in terms of dealing with Chase on set. Now granted, he has done a lot of work as an actor so he knows what it is like to be on a set. But this was unlike anything he had ever done.”
Because he was so young, Chase really didn’t understand the film or its story. “The biggest challenge was getting him into it because he’s eight years old,” Clebanoff said. “He knows his lines and he knows what I tell him. That was the biggest challenge, because you’re dealing with someone who does not really know what he’s involved in. He’s just thrown into it and told to do something. The other three actors were very good about working with him. We rehearsed with him; his mother was very good on set, helping me to motivate him because obviously she knows him better than anyone. But I had to get rough with him in the sense that we were yelling at him. I had to push him to tears. There’s a very intense, disturbing scene where the little boy has this hallucination that the other characters are all dead and coming after him, and he’s screaming and going nuts and we literally had to push him to tears to do that. Those couple of days that we had him were definitely intense. That’s probably when we did the most takes. But in the end he did a fantastic job. The little bit of dialogue that he has, he really did a fantastic job delivering what I wanted.”
Since Unspoken had such a dark subject matter, I asked Clebanoff what the set was like. “The set was extremely light-hearted when we weren’t dealing with an intense scene,” he explained. “There was a lot of playing around, a lot of messing around, everybody was on real good terms with everyone else. But it also got very intense. We were trapped in this little, hot room for 10 days; we’re shooting and there’s no AC running, so everybody is sweating like crazy. The emotions are running high and the actors are going crazy because they’re in that mode and then they have to wait because the lighting isn’t right or whatever.” Still, the hardships did not affect their performances. “Again and again, they would do 10-minute take after 10-minute take unbelievably well,” Clebanoff said. “As I was watching this, on the monitor, I kept looking at my DP and my assistant director saying, ‘These performances are fantastic, they’re gonna get noticed.’ And it’s such a performance driven piece that it is the most important element.”
Interested in the technical aspects of an indie film like Unspoken, I asked Clebanoff what the film’s shooting schedule was and what his crew and equipment were like, specifically what camera was used on the set. “We did 10 days of principle and over the course of a month and a half, we did pick-ups,” Clebanoff told me. “We shot digitally with Cannon XL 1’s, which are my camera of preference. A lot of people prefer otherwise, but I find it to be an incredibly simplistic camera.”
Unspoken was shot completely out of sequence,” he said. “Obviously we had to shoot Bill Sadler’s stuff first, and that comes right in the middle of the film. Chase was shot in and out in two days. I knew that it was going to be difficult, I wanted to get it done and out of the way so we shot his scenes on days three and four. We only had a steady cam for one day, so we did all those shots in a day. Luckily we had this spider-dolly contraption that helped us a lot.”
No matter how carefully schedules are made, sometimes things don’t go as planned, Clebanoff said. “There were a couple of days that we did not make all of our shots, so we had to condense shots. Luckily we were able to pick it up using the spider dolly. There was also one day when Ashley, the lead actress, could not be on set because she had to be at her regular job.” Crew problems also crept into the production. “We only had our second camera certain days and that put us out of sequence,” Clebanoff said. “My biggest mistake was that I did not have someone there specifically as a script supervisor. My script supervisor was holding the boom, so the assistant director was filling in at times and that was my big flaw.”
Clebanoff was quick to give accolades and talk about Unspoken’s crew. “My DP was the first and most significant element of the equation,” he said. “He is actually one of my best friends: Scott Fitzpatrick. When I was doing Unspoken, I thought, ‘One of my best friends is a talented DP, he knows digital equipment….’ This was a way to get myself established as well as get him established. My production crew was about 12—14 people, about half a dozen people for postproduction and a composer (Christopher Caliendo) with half a dozen musicians… Many of my crew had equipment to contribute and my gaffer (Tim Otholt) is not only extremely talented as a cinematographer and a gaffer, he also owns a one-ton grip and electric package. My mom was on set baking cookies for the crew. Although some (of the crew) were through personal references, others were just responses from ads. I put out ads, I interviewed, and I hired. As tedious as interviewing crewmembers is, you do it because you need people that you can trust. On set, the same principles apply, if someone is not doing what they were hired to do, you have to get rid of them.”
It was important to Clebanoff to offer his crew payment for their services. “You have to pay everybody. Even if it’s little or close to nothing, you have to pay people, if for no other reason than expressing to them that you value them. Because bottom line, you get what you pay for,” he said, adding, “Another thing is to pay in cash, because if you pay people in cash, their willing to work for a little bit less. You hand someone a $100 bill at the end of the day, they’re happy.”
Since Clebanoff was on the subject of money, I pressed him to tell me how much Unspoken cost. “I won’t say what the film cost specifically, but it was under $100,000,” he said. “I nickel-and-dimed it, getting funds from friends, family, some outside sources that I solicited. I’ve had a good deal of experience pitching films to investors so I know what it takes to structure a film in an appealing way. Literally, it was five grand here, $2,500 there, $7,500 here. We nickel-and-dimed it. I also put all of my own money into it. I could barely afford to pay my bills when this was done. But it’s worth it.
A large portion of the money went towards the film’s score. “I spent the better part of $10,000 on an original score, which was probably the best money I spent on this project,” Clebanoff said. “I can’t stress how important an original score can be to your film.”
Unspoken as possible and knowing that once the lights go out, the film is by no means done, I asked Clebanoff to tell me about the postproduction of the film. “We cut Unspoken in a little apartment in Hermosa Beach,” he said. “My cinematographer, Scott Fitzpatrick, was also the editor. I was there pretty much every step of the way. I did a lot of the rough cutting and then he would clean it up and do all of the special effects. We started on Avid but ran into a bunch of technical problems and ended up cutting on Adobe Premiere, which is not the program that I would recommend to cut a feature, but it is inexpensive and that is what we had. We used Adobe After Effects for all of the titles and special effects.”Software can be important, but according to Clebanoff, it’s the people doing the work that is important. “We did not use the most impressive equipment, but we got a very high production value out of it,” he said. “A good friend of mine who is aspiring to do postproduction sound and sound effects, he had access to a foley stage. He used professional sound editing equipment and he did everything for us. He brought in some of his friends who did some of the foley work for us. It was tough because I didn’t get to pay them as much as they deserved, but I did pay them. And sometimes it was tough to get people to sit in a little room for 12 hours in a day and edit for little pay, but everyone realized that this was something that could launch their careers, so having their name on it was important.”
Editing Unspoken was a unique challenge. “The film was very difficult to cut because the first 20 minutes are nothing but dialogue. It was very tedious,” Clebanoff said. “We were trying to come up with ways to keep it interesting. It was a very difficult, strenuous, and psychologically abusive process. But once we got through the beginning of the film, it came a lot quicker. Not to mention we did not have a lot of the beginning footage. All of the stock footage at the beginning of the film, we did not have until we were almost done cutting. And because the film is basically all in real time, continuity wise, it was a nightmare. We’d get into post and realize that we were missing a shot and wonder what we were going to do. We were filling shots in with sound and cheating pick up shots. We definitely had to keep our creative edge sharp.”
Previously, Clebanoff had mentioned a debut for Unspoken so I asked him to tell me more about it. “Just the extravagance of the occasion floored everybody,” he said. “We had a very classy venue. It was not a typical theatre; it was like a giant lounge. It was not formal, but it was a chance for people to dress up and look good. There were photographers taking pictures, publicity stuff, and scenes from the film looping on plasma screens before they even went into the screening. People were very excited and it went a long way, especially for people who were not used to that kind of thing. I have gone to a million of those types of events; it’s no big deal to me except that this time it was my film.”
More information about Unspoken and Marc Clebanoff can be found at www.odysseymotionpictures.com. There will also be another portion of this same interview posted in the coming weeks as well as a full review of Unspoken, a down to earth, post-apocalyptic vision set in two rooms seen through just five sets of eyes.