ScreenCraft Behind the Scenes: Screenplay Development & Consulting

March 6, 2013 at 7:50 am

ScreenCraft Behind the Scenes: Screenplay Development & Consulting |


John Rhodes is the co-founder of ScreenCraft.  A new site dedicated to helping screenwriters develop their screenplays.  Recently, I had the opportunity to discuss the inspiration behind ScreenCraft and what it takes to provide writer’s with honest notes and criticism.

Keep reading for tons of insight into the script development process and a behind the scenes look at ScreenCraft.

XTRA | ScreenCraft is looking for Horror Screenplays!  Click here for more.

When did you first become interested in screenwriting?

I became interested in screenwriting in high school.  Growing up in Austin, TX I was surrounded with excellent community theater and indie film programs.  I remember seeing Shakespeare in the park going to SXSW back in the early days and just wanting to be a part of putting on high quality drama and entertainment.  When I moved to Hollywood and worked on DRIVE and the upcoming ENDER’S GAME, I gained first hand experience in the development process of major feature film screenplays.  Since then I’ve worked on dozens of mid-budget films in various development capacities – from securing financing to developing the screenplay with the writer.

What is it about the craft that keeps you coming back for more?

Experiencing emotional reactions from audiences is the most gratifying part of creating feature films.  There’s something awe-inspiring about sitting in a dark room filled with strangers and seeing them laugh or cry from the work you’ve helped develop on the screen.  It’s the enthusiastic conversations and debates that happen on the way out of the theater that are the real validation and reward of screenwriting.

What is ScreenCraft and how did it begin?

ScreenCraft is an independent entertainment content development company.  Our network of studio and production company executives help screenwriters develop their scripts.  It began as an idea that my partner Cameron Cubbison and I had.  We knew so many talented writers and we decided to formalize the way we helped them develop and introduce their content to studios, producers, agents and managers.  Anyone is welcome to check out our services at

Take us through the ScreenCraft process. 

We offer a range of services, including coached pitch sessions, screenplay submission strategy, and access to the largest network of working Hollywood insiders.  We focus on developing excellent narrative content (film, TV, short form) that is also marketable and attractive to the current (and always changing!) industry climate.  Writers expect a level of quality from us that goes far beyond the generic, cookie-cutter notes from many other coverage companies.  Our consultants currently work in development and production at the top studios and production companies.

What attracted you to script consulting/development?

Screenwriting is where the magic happens; it’s the purest part of the creative process.  This may sound cliché, but the power of story is so elemental to being human.  It’s how we learn and communicate truth.  And audio-visual narrative in film and TV is the most pervasive and powerful art form we currently have.

What makes a good script note?

Great question.  Giving good (read: useful) script notes is an art in itself.  So many writers hate the notes process because development executives often don’t speak the same “language” as writers; they’re concerned with separate things.  In my experience, the best notes acknowledge what the writer is trying to do (this also allows the writer to clarify if the development executive misunderstands) and offers reasons why it doesn’t work for the development executive.  Every development person has their own “pet” criteria that they bring to most scripts.  At the end of the day, everybody will have notes on any script (or finished film for that matter).  The important thing is to take notes from somebody who a) has a proven track record or b) has the power to get your screenplay produced!

Is it tough reading a ‘bad’ screenplay knowing you have to be honest in your notes?

I read all levels of screenplays.  It’s never fun to read a bad screenplay.  That said, there is something good in every screenplay.  I have no problem pointing out problems.  But I also point out at least one good thing – usually the core strength around which the screenplay should be shaped.

Carefully constructed criticism can be tricky.  It can be discouraging but it can also inspire writers to improve.  Is it hard finding a balance between the two while avoiding either extreme?

Writing is often a difficult process.  It can definitely be discouraging.  And the fact is, there are few writers who have the stamina and determination to practice enough to “make it.”  As F. Scott Fitzgerald said in a letter to his daughter: “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.

What would you say is the one thing that keeps a good script from being great?

That’s the million dollar question!  It’s never just one thing.  Each screenplay has its unique challenges.  The most common basic problem I encounter is a protagonist that isn’t interesting or strong enough.  A script should make me laugh or cry or gasp or sigh.  Without being able to elicit a strong gut reaction from a reader, a script is dead.

What is the most common mistake new writers make before submitting their screenplays?

Most writers don’t re-write enough.  Before submitting a screenplay, a writer should have their script read first by friends, then by professionals and then by executives.

What advice would you give an aspiring screenwriter about to submit his/her work?

Get your screenplay read by a development professional.  There are plenty of paid coverage services that will give you notes for less than $100.  At ScreenCraft we connect writers directly with development executives for notes – so they get a 2 for one: development and exposure to Hollywood decision makers.

In your opinion, what elements make up the perfect pitch?

Pitching is important, but not nearly as important as writing.  Nobody is buying spec pitches anymore, unless you have a proven, produced screenplay under your belt.  That said, a good pitch is truly an art form which involves the same key elements that a script has: good structure and passionate storytelling.  I could write several dozen pages about how to pitch (and how not to)!

Can you tell me about a screenplay that truly inspired you?

I really loved reading the DRIVE script for the first time.  The first 20 pages of that script are sensational.  I also really love a recent spec screenplay in development called THE DISCIPLE PROGRAM – it’s a great example of a strong, surprising, intriguing protagonist.  I had never read something like it.

What’s next for ScreenCraft?  For you?

ScreenCraft is shiny and new!  We look forward to helping hundreds of aspiring writers refine their scriptwriting technique in the coming months and years.  I’m also producing several upcoming panels in Los Angeles – we’ll have top producers, screenwriters, managers and lawyers talk about the changing industry, how new spec screenplays are getting discovered and marketed, and disruptive business models in digital entertainment.  We also have a new Horror Screenplay Contest.  I also manage a small list of writers and directors.  I have several films in development and an exciting project starring John Hawkes in production.

Special thanks to John Rhodes for the interview.

Follow ScreenCraft on twitter here.

The Post: Interviews with 11 Famous Directors

December 3, 2012 at 9:54 am

The Post: Interviews with 11 Famous Directors

Have you watched a short film today?


Quentin Tarantino, Ben Affleck, Ang Lee, Tom Hooper, David O. Russell, and Gus Van Sant.  Just hit play.



XTRA | Review: Why HUGO to the movies



XTRA | Movies That Changed Everything: The Lord of the Rings


XTRA | Inside the Edit: Kill Bill Volume 1


XTRA | Star Wars Episode VII Story Round Up


A great speech about the merits of creating mysteries.

XTRA | A tribute to J.J Abrams

Film School & The Calling Card Short Film

November 19, 2012 at 8:14 am

Film School & The Calling Card Short Film | By The Light of the Silvery Moon Colorado Film School


XTRA | Have you watched a short film today?

The Calling Card short film.  The big one.  The film you’ll use after you graduate to show people what you’re capable of.  It sounds daunting but it’s an exciting project that you work towards for years as a film student.  Personally, I never went to film school.  I went into Television but I’ve always wondered what may have been if I had decided to go to Film School.

Fortunately, Amanda Prentiss and Evgueni Mlodik were kind enough to share their experience at the Colorado Film School.  Their current project is a big one.  It’s a short film called By the Light of the Silvery Moon and it’s based on The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen.

The film is currently in pre-production with Amanda producing & Evgueni writing & directing.  So what’s it like to produce a calling card film?  Read on for both perspectives on what it’s like to be a student, how it impacts their choices as artists and what they hope to achieve with their latest project.

What is ‘By the Light of the Silvery Moon’?

Amanda: “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” is the name of a song from 1909. The music was composed by Gus Edwards and the lyrics by Edward Madden. In our film, the lead character, Sybille (our little mermaid), sings the song. It’s about love and being in the arms of the one you love. It’s representational of the love she yearns for, as well as a foreshadowing of a later scene that takes place in the moonlight, but isn’t quite as romantic.

Evgueni: “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” is a classic romantic song that ironically reflects the themes and characters of the film and appears in a number of forms throughout the story. The song speaks of finding grand love and marriage under the beauty of the silvery moonlight, and all of that does occur in the film… But with a twist.

Film School & The Calling Card Short Film | By The Light of the Silvery Moon Colorado Film School

As a student and aspiring filmmaker, how important is it to select the right subject matter for a thesis film?

Amanda: Selecting the right subject for a thesis film is extremely important for two main reasons. For one, it’s the final project you’ll make in film school, so it means a lot personally. On the other hand, it becomes your calling card – whether you apply for grad school or immediately try to get a job, admissions counselors and prospective employers are going to look at that film.

Evgueni: I think it is important to stay true to one self while experimenting with different styles and themes in order to find your own individual voice. It is easy to conform and get lost in imitation while attending film school, so it was crucial for me to find a good story that spoke to me personally and would lend itself to a unique and interesting dramatization in front of the cameras. I also feel that the more your finished product stands out, the bigger the chance you and your work will get noticed.

Film School & The Calling Card Short Film | By The Light of the Silvery Moon Colorado Film School

What made you finally decide on adapting The Little Mermaid?  What inspired you about the story?

Amanda: I was actually not involved in the decision at all. This is Ev’s thesis project – I signed on after he had already written the first draft of the script. That being said, the story had a lot to do with why I got involved. I love fairy tales, especially the original ones. I think it’s because they are darker and less cheesy than a lot of the adaptations that have been made from them. For me, the story is inspiring because it’s so applicable. We all yearn for that “true love” but at the same time, we have to question whether the sacrifices we make for it are worth it. Particularly in this day and age, when we as a society are so materialistic, people often find themselves in the position of debating between love and furthering themselves in a different way – whether it be a career opportunity or what they perceive as the freedom to “experience life” before settling down.

Evgueni: An adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” has been on my mind for quite some time. I grew up in Russia, where the tale is quite famous, but in its original form, before the Disney revision. I always felt drawn to the tale of the tragic misfit who could never properly integrate into any of her surroundings, especially those she earned for. When I move to the US, I was surprised that no one knew of the story as originally written and its deeper themes and tragic ending eluded so many people. While the Disney version is known and loved in Russia, the original conclusion is much better known. In light of some recent personal events, as well as my growing fascination with German Expressionism, made me feel that it was the perfect time and opportunity to adapt this story into a new film, as well trying something completely brave and new for my final college thesis project. It was always my determination to try creating something challenging and thought provoking, since this is first and foremost a concluding thesis of fours years’ worth of education.

Film School & The Calling Card Short Film | By The Light of the Silvery Moon Colorado Film School

Choosing to do an adaptation presents many challenges for the screenwriter.  Can you elaborate on your approach to the story and some of the challenges you faced writing the screenplay?

Amanda: As I mentioned before, I was not involved in the writing of the screenplay. However, I was a part of the rewrite process. In that regard, I would say one of the challenges was determining where to stick with the original story and where to make it our own. Another issue was with the story itself – up to the last scene, it’s a pretty well-known story. We had to face the challenge of figuring out how to engage the audience and keep them interested while still telling that familiar story.

Evgueni: While I believe “The Little Mermaid” was tailor made for a German Expressionist style film, there had to be changes made to fit the style and our budget. Amanda was amazing in helping me prune the original screenplay and bringing it down to a tight and concise story. Some of the fairy tale’s original aspects were either removed or changed, such as the Mermaid’s initial meeting with the “Prince Charming” and the Witch’s role had to be modified somewhat to fit our narrative better. Of course, we have no fish tails or sea foam, but in spirit, I think this is the closest adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s immortal work.

What sets this adaptation apart from previous work such as Disney’s animated feature film The Little Mermaid?

Amanda: This adaptation is completely different. To begin with, the stories are opposites of each other. Disney’s The Little Mermaid is extremely light-hearted and ends with the traditional “happily ever after.” Our film is a much darker story and ends in tragedy. The Disney version also focuses much of its attention on what happens to Ariel after she becomes human, as well as the interactions and growing love between her and Eric. One might say the theme is true love prevails (like many Disney stories). In our story, a lot of time is taken to establish Sybille’s world and the ramifications of her choices for wanting to be with Matthias (our Eric). I would say our theme falls more along the line of choices, and how when we make choices, we must then face the consequences of them – particularly if the end result is not as we expected.

Evgueni: I feel our film will be the complete antithesis of the Disney version, exploring different styles and themes. The ocean setting is now a macabre cabaret, a setting so familiar to German Expressionist films of the 1920s and 30s. The mermaids, while still the ethereal sirens, in our story appear as tempting dancers living under the harsh contract of a devilish Madam. The Prince “Eric” of the piece is no longer the saintly cardboard cut out of a leading male character, but more complex and flawed human being. We also added a new character, that is unique to our version, that of the Pale Man. He figures greatly in our Mermaid’s ordeal and is related greatly to her final fate.

Film School & The Calling Card Short Film | By The Light of the Silvery Moon Colorado Film School

As students, what do you hope to achieve with this film both professionally and academically?

Amanda: Wow, that’s a good question. Professionally, I hope to make a film that I can be proud of, and that we can get into festivals. Who knows, maybe someone will see it, and that’ll be my “big break”. (Laughing). No, just to get it into some decently good festivals would mean a lot to me. On an academic level, I just hope it’s a film that people like, and maybe even get into the student show. Oftentimes, you’re very judged by how good your film is (which is completely fair) and people decide whether or not they want to work on projects with you based on the other work you’ve done. I hope people don’t see this and decide they don’t want to work with me. That’d be super unfortunate.

Evgueni: First and foremost I would like to create a film that the cast and crew can be proud of putting on their resume. Second, I wish to present a complex and beautifully constructed thesis film that will stand out as its own unique creation that will also create buzz and help all the amazingly talented and hard working people that helped create it. Of course, having it end up in a place like the Cannes Film Festival would be a dream come true, but I would be extremely proud and happy if “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” traveled the American festival circuit, and who knows, maybe after that we will conquer Europe as well.

Having never gone to film school, I find it fascinating how people carve out filmmaking identities for themselves.  Some discover their place at school while others skip film school altogether.  What are some of the advantages of film studies and how has it affected your growth as an artist?

Amanda: Honestly, I’d say it’s six of one and a half-dozen of the other in regards to whether or not to go to film school. I would say that one of the big advantages of film school is the freedom to fail. In the “real world” the stakes are a lot higher whereas we have the ability to be able to experiment with our projects (at least the lower level ones) and if things don’t go as planned, we have people there supporting us and walking us through what went wrong and how we can avoid those mistakes in the future. Another advantage is the access to equipment – Colorado Film School has an entire equipment cage full of various cameras, lights, and other equipment that we can use and learn about. For example, we’re shooting this film on the RED ONE. The rental fees for that camera run at roughly $600-$1000 per day. If we didn’t have access to the camera through the school, there’d be no way we’d be able to use it. You also get a lot of exposure not just to your instructors, who are film professionals, but also the guest artists they bring in to talk with us. As a producing student, I feel that’s extremely beneficial, since I’ve had the opportunity to attend talks with entertainment lawyers, television CEOs, and big-budget film producers. Each has taken the time to talk one-on-one with students about our current projects and our future plans. This is a subject that I could go on a long time about. To put it simply, for me, I feel really blessed by the experiences film school has allowed me to have, from the classes to the people I’ve had the opportunity to meet. I can’t imagine doing it any other way.

Evgueni: That’s an excellent, and difficult, question, Jason! I don’t think I’d be able to pursue filmmaking without a degree and going to film school has truly instilled me confidence of finding my own voice, as well as learning the craft itself and the rudimentary “tools of the trade,” so to speak. The teachers who worked in the industry and the numerous guest speakers have provided me and other students with great experience and knowledge of what to expect in the real world of film business and how to pursue our goals and dreams. I also feel that film school is a great crutch for your first productions, seeing how it can provide amazing equipment to shoot your film that would never be able to obtain otherwise on a dilettante’s budget. Most importantly, however, thanks to film school, I have met many amazing young artists and nothing inspires creativity more than an atmosphere charged with talent and ambition and to try bold new things in story telling and filmmaking.

Film School & The Calling Card Short Film | By The Light of the Silvery Moon Colorado Film School

Given your unique take on the literature, what challenges have you faced during pre-production?  Has it been difficult to pull off the vision you have in mind?

Amanda: I think one of the most difficult things was determining a coherent vision for the film. We wanted to give the film a period look, without pinpointing it to a specific era, much in the way many of Tim Burton’s films or done, or Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. That being said, finding period locations on a budget is another big difficulty. We found a few places that we initially thought would work great, but they wanted to charge us pretty exorbitant rental fees. Pulling off our vision has been pretty hard, most of that due to our monetary limitations. Oh well, they say limitations breed creativity, and I’d say we’re a pretty creative lot, so I have a lot of faith that it will all work out.

Evgueni: This has been one of the hardest projects I ever worked on. The budget angle is important, but it’s easy to get lost with scale and ambition of the film. I’ve studied many older films made in the style we’re going for, some few have even heard of, as well tracking down any adaptation of “The Little Mermaid” I could find to make sure we’re not repeating ourselves. I’ve also been working closely with the production designer and director of photography to make sure all the colors and visuals are in sync with the intended vision. It’s been difficult to maintain the dignity and integrity of the project on a small budget and tight schedule, but Amanda is a true angel and a consummate professional who’s guiding hand has been a blessing. I truly believe that by pulling our resources together we can create something worthwhile and beautiful.

What’s next for ‘By the Light of the Silvery Moon’?

Amanda: We’ve got a ton of things going on right now. Our main focus is to raise the remainder of the funds we need. We have our IndieGoGo up but time is running out. I’m personally a little nervous about this. Either way, we’re making this film, but meeting our budget would make life a lot easier. Not reaching our goal will affect the overall production value of the film – especially the production design, since this is a period piece. On a more tangible level, if we don’t get that money, we can’t have as much food available for craft services, and that weighs really heavy on my mind. Everyone is working on this project for free, and we need to be able to feed them 2-3 meals per day for 8 days. We currently have a crew of 35 and a cast of 47. That’s a lot of mouths to feed, and not a lot of money to do it with. So, funding, funding, funding is my main priority as the producer. An equally important thing is to film our trailer, which needs to be completed by December 1st. That’s less of an issue to for me, because we are intentionally making the trailer very, very simplistic.

Evgueni: Oh, wow, where to begin? Right now we’re all set in preparing an intriguing and abstract teaser trailer to help raise buzz about the film and we are deep in rehearsals for the film’s complex dance and music scenes. Our amazing choreographer is doing a beautiful job and I’ve often had my jaw drop when seeing her work. We are also locating the best possible settings to shoot on our conservative budget.  I’ve also recently got in touch with a talented local composer and we’re in the process of writing some gorgeous melodies fort he dancers, as well as a brand new arrangement or “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.” All in all, the production is steadily moving along to its triumphant completion, no matter how slow and rocky the road ahead might be.

Film School & The Calling Card Short Film | By The Light of the Silvery Moon Colorado Film School

What’s next for you?

Amanda: My next big project coming up will be my Production II film. I’ll be working on that from January-March, which means that it and this film will overlap. I’ve chosen to make my project relatively short and simple, with the overlap in mind. I have at least a year left until I graduate, so I’m not entirely sure what I’ll end up doing at that point. My hope is to someday be a showrunner for a television show, so I’ll probably apply to a variety of grad programs as well as professional training programs. We’ll see what happens.

Evgueni: Well, as this being my final college project, I’ll be acquiring my BFA in Writing/Directing in May and then moving on to Los Angeles to pursue my dream. I hope that “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” will be a tangible “Calling Card” film. My main dream is to settle somewhere close to the film industry and continue doing what I do best. Giving people entertaining and challenging films.

Thanks to Amanda Prentiss & Evgueni Mlodik for the interview.

For more Indie Film Interviews click here.

Film School & The Calling Card Short Film | By The Light of the Silvery Moon Colorado Film School

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part TWO

October 14, 2012 at 9:39 pm

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part ONE | Independent Film Interview Steve Janas


Back in July, I featured a short film called The Tolltaker in The Post. Today we go behind the scenes with the film’s director Steve Janas. This interview will be split into two parts, the first examines the film’s origins and pre-production. The second delves deeper into production and post-production.

The story behind the Tolltaker is one of ambition but also tragedy. At the center of it all is a passionate filmmaker, determined to make a feature film version of this story for himself and as a tribute to the author who inspired it all.

But first, check out the full short film:


Talk about the decision to create a short film before attempting the feature version of The Tolltaker.  What are some of the advantages/disadvantages of such an approach?  What advice would you give to people considering similar options for their projects?

That’s a biggie. I’m not sure I’m in a position to give advice to others for something I haven’t yet succeeded at myself. I’m certainly not the first person to make a short film with an eye toward finding backing for the feature-length version. It’s an approach that worked for George Lucas and the Cohen Brothers, among others. So maybe it will work for me.

Now, there are people who have made feature-length films for less – considerably less – than what I spent on Tolltaker. However, I just didn’t think that micro-budget approach would work for the story, so I decided to concentrate my resources on creating the best quality snapshot of the overall story that I could manage.

The question was whether to do an actual trailer for the film or a fully realized story that could stand on its own. I decided that, ultimately, making a stand-alone movie would have more impact. People embrace a full story more heartily than just the fragments they’re enticed by in a trailer.

And my goal for the short film is for as many people to see it – and like it – as possible. I want people to fall in love with the story like I did, to root for it as “the little movie that could” (to quote my co-producer Lavinia).

In these days of social media, the way people do that is by watching videos online, posting the link on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, and talking about it in chats. That’s how I’d like to develop a following for Tolltaker. I’d love for people to want to read the screenplay for the feature after seeing the short, and I would like to use the number of viewings on Vimeo and “Likes” on Facebook as proof to potential backers that an audience exists for the feature-length film.

That’s not to say I’m not entering the film into festivals as well. Nothing imparts respectability upon a film like those little film festival laurels you can put on the poster or the website.

The Tolltaker has several distinct styles.  What inspired that approach and how did you go about planning each unique look?

Well, for the live-action stuff centered on Bobby’s life in Philadelphia, I guess I wanted to render it mostly in the honey-drenched glow of nostalgia. This is a story being told from the perspective of an adult looking back on his childhood. Like Stand By Me, or Frank Darabont adapting a Stephen King story such as Green Mile.

The animated scenes are broken into two distinct styles. We come across the first after Bobby turns and fires his toy gun at the camera in what we called the James Bond shot (you’ll know it when you see it).

This animation is more playful and “cartoonish” in the Hanna-Barbera sense. This is Bobby at play, a young kid lost in his own imagination. It shouldn’t be surprising that it resembles the cartoons that Bobby no doubt loves watching on TV.

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part TWO | Independent Film Interview Steve Janas

The second style is altogether different: more sinister and creepy, and looks more like the kind of “adult” animation you would expect to see in a Ralph Bakshi film. It should be noted that this animated world is beyond Bobby’s control. It sneaks up on him like a traumatic memory bubbling up out of the unconscious and seizes control of his mind through the force of sheer horror.

The third distinct style can be found in the Vietcong tunnel scenes with Bobby’s dad and his fellow GI Gary. This is grainy and washed out, a nod to the gritty, hyper-realistic style of certain Tony Scott films, for instance. However, thanks to the work of our VFX guy Mike Enright and Sound Designer Rodney Whittenberg, these sequences cross the line altogether from realism to a kind of feverish nightmare world. It wasn’t planned exactly that way, but was instead one of those unexpected syntheses you’re occasionally rewarded with when you take any project from planning to execution.

I guess you can also say there is another style on display when Gary tells his story to Bobby’s family, and Bobby enters a sort of temporary psychosis to block out what Gary is saying. I’ve always been fascinated by surrealism and expressionism, and that’s exactly what this scene is.

The word “surrealism” literally means something that exists “on top of” realism, or realism taken a step upward, beyond the dimensions of reality that we’re familiar with. I like to think that’s what I was attempting with this scene: starting with reality and crossing the line at a certain key moment to something trippy and fantastic.

One director who I think is truly an expert at this approach is the late British director Lindsay Anderson. His movies If… and Oh, What A Lucky Man made a real impact on me, and I would encourage people to seek them out and watch them.

What challenges did you face planning and executing the live action elements vs the animated sequences?

They both had their challenges. Or, rather, the execution had its challenges. I saw the movie very clearly in my head before shooting it, so the imagining part was easy.

The “doing” part was another story entirely. As I said, for the Vietcong tunnel scenes, we built a 60-foot long set out of old pallets in a warehouse. The audacity of that can be credited to my co-producer Lavinia DeCastro. When we were discussing how to do these scenes, she said, “We’re going to have to build it.” And that was that. She can be very determined.

It was actually Dan Buck who oversaw construction of the tunnel. He was an absolutely invaluable motivating force behind this project, who oversaw the logistics of actually getting stuff done. He proved himself to be an absolutely killer Line Producer.

The warehouse itself was an interesting place. Aside from being home to a few businesses, it also provided rehearsal space to some very loud death-metal bands, as well as a location for some rather elaborate S&M parties.

In the movie, when Bobby ventures into the mouth of the Tolltaker tunnel, he winds up in a maze of subterranean passages. These were actually not beneath the streets of Northeast Philly, but Girard College, a private school for underprivileged boys in North Philadelphia. The school’s often been used as a movie location, for films like James Franco’s Annapolis, among others. I remember watching television one time and getting a shock of recognition when I realized the commercial I was watching was shot in the same tunnel where Bobby has his final confrontation with the Tolltaker.

As for the animation, as I said, it was overseen by Lavinia. I storyboarded pretty much the entire film, and handed the storyboards for the animated scenes to her to realize. We chose rotoscoping as the method of animation because it’s based on live-action footage that you shoot before the animation process begins. Since Lavinia was still a student at the time, she felt this was safely within her capacities.

Her “lieutenant,” as it were, was a guy named Jake Hoisington, a highly-regarded fellow student at the Institute, whose participation in the project Lavinia thought of as something of a coup. At one point, we shot a little “behind the scenes” feature with Jake, where he explains the rotoscoping process from one of the animation bays at the school.

What was it like on set?  Was it difficult ensuring that the live action would fit with the animation?

This was a pretty ambitious project, with multiple locations. We only had the budget for seven days of shooting, so we had to be pretty organized. Again, much of the credit goes to Dan Buck for that.

It was important for me to make sure I had professionals do the shooting, lighting and sound, and I was willing to pay for it. Fortunately, I found Mike Brand, the Director of Photography, who was about as pro as you can get. He brought along a whole stable of capable professionals to serve as gaffer, sound recorder and such.

The scene in the diner with the waitress at the beginning of the film was shot in a small café in downtown Royersford, Pa. I have to say that the town of Royersford bent over backwards to help us. They even had the police shut down a street so that we could shoot the scene where five-year-old Bobby is walking home with his Paw-Paw.

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part TWO | Independent Film Interview Steve Janas

What wound up being the biggest stressor in terms of getting the thing done was the fact that the lead actor, Cullen Clancey – who plays Bobby – was about to move to Zurich, Switzerland, where his father had gotten a new job. I mean, it was down to the wire – on the last day of shooting, Cullen and his mom had to go home and finish packing afterwards, because they were leaving, literally, the next day.

As for getting the live action to match the animation, that wasn’t too difficult, thanks to the rotoscoping process. Since rotoscoping begins with live-action footage, the animator has a pretty solid base to work from.

Can you elaborate on the animation process?

The process, as I said, is called Rotoscoping, and it dates to 1917. Basically, what it involves is shooting live action and then drawing over top of it. In past eras, what took place was that each frame of movie footage would be projected onto a pane of glass, and an animator would painstakingly draw the animated scene on the opposite side of the glass. These days, like most things, the process is digital, and instead of panes of glass, the animators draw on what are called Wacom tablets. Instead of pens, they’ll use a stylus whose markings will register on-screen in whatever animation software is being used.

In America, the filmmaker most associated with rotoscoping is without a doubt Ralph Bakshi. He has developed a large cult following for trippy, adult-oriented cartoons like Fritz the Cat, Wizards, and an early, animated version of Lord of the Rings. Other directors who have done rotoscoped films include Richard Linklater whose A Scanner Darkly, as I said, shares a member of the animation crew with Tolltaker: Monique Ligons.

When it comes to animation and live action, do you prefer one over the other?

I can’t say that I do. Each has its appropriate time and place. I’ve always been a fan of animation, and I’m gratified that, for example, the old Warner Bros. cartoons are highly regarded as the meticulous works of art that they are. I’m also happy that the last generation or so has seen the development of animation beyond being just being a gimmick for kids (in some people’s eyes) to becoming a fresh way to explore more grown-up ideas and themes.

Of course, these days, the line between animation and live action is growing ever more indistinct. Many – if not most – big-budget Hollywood movies have some sort of motion-capture going on, where the actors are shot against a green screen, and some kind of computer graphics are inserted into the scene.

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part TWO | Independent Film Interview Steve Janas

What’s your favorite moment in the film?

Not an easy question to answer. You don’t want to tell any of your children that he/she is your favorite. That being said, I do find myself most affected emotionally by the end, after Bobby has his confrontation with the Tolltaker.

Over the years, I’ve become a huge devotee of people like Joseph Campbell and – especially – Carl Jung. Rather late to the party, I know. But still, when I read what they had to say, it just makes sense to me, from a storytelling perspective as well as many others.

I bring this up because I realized, mostly after the film was shot, that there are plenty of archetypal forces at play in Tolltaker. The whole idea of a hero journeying into the underworld to meet his dead father, for example. Odysseus did it, and so did Aeneas. Also, the concept of the underworld, this subterranean place, being a representation of the unconscious, and the appearance of the Tolltaker being what Jung might call “emergent content” filtering up from way down deep in the psyche – I love playing with ideas like that.

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part TWO | Independent Film Interview Steve Janas

What’s next for The Tolltaker?

Well, the goal remains what it’s always been – to get the feature-length film made. As I said, I want to build an audience for it any way I can, so I can show a potential producer that there are people who would go out and see this. It’s available for anyone to watch online, for free, on Vimeo.

What’s next for you?

In a non-Tolltaker sense, you mean? Well, I’ll continue running Reel Stuff Entertainment with my business partner Jesper Olsson, for one thing. We’re based in Center City Philadelphia, and have produced somewhere in the neighborhood of 600-700 web videos since 2006, for clients like the Discovery Channel, the Travel Channel, AOL, Lexis-Nexis and many more.

I also want to continue developing series for the web and television. We have one TV series in the marketplace right now called Europe After Dark, which is about nightlife in Europe. We shot it in places like Ibiza, Amsterdam and Prague, and have a lot of material up on our YouTube channel.

I also have the opportunity to develop a web series about the supernatural for James Franco’s web TV channel Rabbit TV. I’m really looking forward to that.

But it will always be making movies that remains my chief ambition. I have no shortage of ideas. My computer is filled with story treatments that could keep me busy for years to come if I could come up with the resources to get them made.

We’ll just have to see what the future holds.


Special thanks to Steve Janas for the interview.

Tolltaker will screen at the Terror Film Festival in Philadelphia Oct. 18, 2012.  It has been nominated for several awards including Best Short Film, Best Director, Best Actor and more.

Visit Steve Janas’ Blog Here.

Follow The Tolltaker on Facebook here.

Check out James Sneddon’s novel here.

Read more Independent Film Interviews here.

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part ONE | Independent Film Interview Steve Janas

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part ONE

October 9, 2012 at 8:35 am

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part ONE | Independent Film Interview Steve Janas

Back in July, I featured a short film called The Tolltaker in The Post.  Today we go behind the scenes with the film’s director Steve Janas.  This interview will be split into two parts, the first examines the film’s origins and pre-production.  The second delves deeper into production and post-production.

The story behind the Tolltaker is one of ambition but also tragedy.  At the center of it all is a passionate filmmaker, determined to make a feature film version of this story for himself and as a tribute to the author who inspired it all.

But first, check out the full short film:


What is The Tolltaker about and what does it mean to you?

Well, The Tolltaker’s storyline is basically this: there’s a young boy named Bobby living in Northeast Philadelphia in 1973. His father has been MIA in Vietnam for three years and Bobby is one of the few people left in his family who still believes his father will return home safe one day. The basis for this belief is a cheap metal charm bracelet with the name of Bobby’s father inscribed on it: as long as he wears this Safekeeper (as it’s called), Bobby believes his father will be safe.

Soon after Bobby and his mother move out of his grandparents’ house and into an apartment of their own, Bobby comes upon a drainage tunnel in which he has a face-to-face encounter with the Tolltaker, a ghoul-like creature who demands the Safekeeper as its toll. Bobby runs, but it’s no use – once the Tolltaker sees something it wants, it’s relentless in its pursuit.

Now – what does The Tolltaker mean? I could probably go on for days about that. It’s a throwback to the kind of horror stories I consumed like candy when I was a kid; by people like Stephen King or Dean Koontz, with a hero who would often be some young boy about Bobby’s age, and his encounter with the supernatural becomes a coming-of-age trial for him.

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part ONE | Interview Steve Janas

In terms of movies, I can cite antecedents like Stand By Me or Pan’s Labyrinth. Both are movies about children’s lives that have been touched by some profound darkness, and the mark it has left on their souls. It may seem like a cruel interest: stories about children who endure some kind of psychological or physical trauma. But I guess the real interest is seeing how this crisis defines the person this child is already, and the person he’s going to grow into. He may be a child going into the story, but he isn’t by the end.

So, if the Tolltaker could be said to “represent” anything, it’s the cost of growing up. The cost of innocence lost, of mortality glimpsed. The toll you have to pay to proceed along the journey of Life.

Tolltaker is based on a novel by James Sneddon.  Can you talk about your journey from discovering the book to creating the film?

James Sneddon was the older brother of one of my oldest friends, Steve Sneddon (who actually makes a cameo appearance in the film). They both grew up in the same Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood where the film was set and shot. When they were kids, one of the things they would do for fun would be to climb inside a huge drainage tunnel nearby (the same one, in fact, we used as a location in the film) with flashlights and notebooks and write the kind of fanciful little stories a kid that age would write.

Years passed. James (or Jimmy, as his family called him) grew up and took on the responsibilities and obligations of adulthood. He got married, he had kids. But he never lost that love of writing, and so, in his mid-to-late 30’s, he resolved to actually write that novel he always wanted to. The Tolltaker was the result.

Jimmy came from a working-class background, and had no connections in the publishing industry. He really didn’t know what to do with his new book. So he entered it into a writing contest whose grand prize would be publication of the winning manuscript. Tolltaker won, and was published by Five Star publishing in 2004.

You can buy the novel on Amazon here.

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part ONE | Independent Film Interview Steve Janas

It was around this time, my friend Steve mentioned to me that his brother Jimmy had just written a book.  What struck me right away was how it was being marketed by the publisher as a horror story, when I thought its greatest strength was its heart. Jim had a wonderful grasp of character and family dynamics, especially a blue-collar family in a blue-collar neighborhood. It was a really touching coming-of-age story, and I knew right away that I wanted to adapt it as a screenplay.

So, with Jim’s permission, I did. It only took about five weeks to finish – that’s how vividly I saw the finished film. Jim made one or two suggestions, but generally kept out of the process. Screenwriting was alien to him, like looking at the skeleton of a building under construction and having to imagine what the finished product would look like.

I submitted the Tolltaker to screenplay competitions. Why not start at the top, I reasoned, so one of the first was the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship screenwriting competition, held annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

Tolltaker didn’t win, but it was named a semi-finalist, meaning that out of more than 6,000 total submissions, it made the cut of the top 100. It was, of course, an honor. Validation is what every artist is looking for in his heart of hearts, validation that what he wanted to say got said, that the act of communication he undertook was successful. Of course, you can always do better. The finalists (there are ten of them, I think) win $30,000 each. Validation is great, but so is cold, hard cash.  Regardless, that was enough to get me inquiries from a few Los Angeles based producers interested in looking at the screenplay, and agent-managers interested in representing me as a screenwriter.

One of the latter was a guy named Michael Lee, who did wind up representing me for a while. He knew my interest was in getting the screenplay made into a feature motion picture, and told me that the odds might be better if I made a short-film adaptation and presented myself to the film festival circuit as a writer-director.

That was in 2005. It’s been a long road getting this far, and we’re not there yet. But we do have a short film that I’m very proud of and an award-winning screenplay. We’re on our way.

Of course, the whole thing is bittersweet, because James Sneddon died unexpectedly shortly after the screenplay was finished. He never knew about it becoming a semi-finalist at the Nicholl Fellowships, and he never knew that I was going to adapt it as a short film. That’s another motivator for me to push this whole thing forward.  When he died, Jim didn’t have much to leave his wife and two girls, who are struggling to get by. It would be nice if they could see some kind of payday, no matter how modest.

What was it about the book that inspired you and what challenges did you face adapting it for film?

Hands-down, the main thing that inspired me was the character of Bobby. I just loved him. He was one of those scrappy kids that literature is full of, from Tom Sawyer to Oliver Twist. Too often, when we’re shown kids in the movies and on TV, what we’re presented with are these manufactured objects that exist only to be self-consciously cute. A kid who breaks out of the pigeonhole and shows himself to be a human being – warts and all – is someone I think deserves my respect.

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part ONE | Independent Film Interview Steve Janas

I was also taken with the setting. Philadelphia in the 70’s. A kid being raised by a single mother. I, too, was a kid raised in the Philadelphia area in the 70’s by a single mother. And they both happened to have the same name: Judy. Small wonder I identified with this story, isn’t it?

Finally, I suppose I’m something of a natural mystic at heart. I’ve always been taken by the idea of a larger, more fantastic world existing beyond this one, with portals back and forth tucked away in unlikely, out-of-the-way places. One of my absolute favorite books as a kid was The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. I also loved books like The Phantom Tollbooth and A Wrinkle in Time. I only wish that all kids could have their inner lives enriched by wonderful stories like these.

As for the question of what challenges I faced adapting the story to film, would you like them itemized alphabetically or by degree of impossibility?

First of all, it’s a period piece, set in the early 70’s. Secondly, the main character required a talented child actor to play him. Third, there were scenes set in a war zone, as well as in a ghostly fantasy world, that would require creative solutions to realize in terms of production design.

Fortunately, I had a really good group of people who committed themselves to getting Tolltaker this far. By far, the two stand-outs are my co-producers Lavinia DeCastro and Dan Buck. Lavinia was studying animation at the time, and she oversaw that aspect of the production. And it became quite formidable.

At one point, the entire first floor of my house had been turned into an animation studio, with about a dozen animators – mostly Lavinia’s fellow students at the Art Institute of Philadelphia – working on laptops that had been set up on folding tables. Not all the animators were students, though. One – Monique Ligons – had actually worked on Richard Linklater’s film A Scanner Darkly, which, like Tolltaker, was animated by rotoscoping.

The climax of the story takes place inside a Vietcong tunnel beneath the battlegrounds of Vietnam. We shot this live-action, by building a 60-foot-long set constructed from old shipping pallets inside a drafty old warehouse in Northeast Philly.

But the biggest challenge was the same one every filmmaker faces: financing. Doing all of this was not going to be cheap, even for a short film where most of the cast and crew were donating their time.

My lucky break came when a web series I had pitched to the Discovery Channel was green-lighted. It was called  Living Tomorrow, and with what I made off that, I financed Tolltaker. There were people who thought I was crazy at the time, and to date there’s little evidence to prove them wrong, I suppose.

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part ONE | Independent Film Interview Steve Janas


Visit Steve Janas’ Blog Here.

Follow The Tolltaker on Facebook here.

Check out James Sneddon’s novel here.

Read more Independent Film Interviews here.

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part ONE | Independent Film Interview Steve Janas