CO-DIRECTING INDIE FILMS WITH JOHN C. LYONS AND DOROTA SWIES

This month, Giles Alderson spoke to John C. Lyons & Dorota Swies – co-directors of the fracking horror story Unearth about how they started making their indie films.

Starting Out

Dorota and John started working together after college. They didn’t have filmmaking experience and didn’t have connections in the film industry. “So we had to start from zero and just bought our own portfolio or experience to be able to move to larger projects.”

They helped on other films, doing camera work, etc, in order to practice and they also made shorts and a couple of zero budget features. 

Unearth was initially a low-budget Kickstarter “and it was just because 275 people across the world contributed to that Kickstarter, and we got 150% of our goal that we were like maybe this is the one that we should try and raise more money for. Let’s use this Kickstarter to do a proof of concept and let’s see if we can attract more talent and a professional cast and crew. And that’s how we took that next step.”

Their First Feature Films

We had purchased our DVX 100 for a short called Hunting Camp. We did two shorts –  Hunting Camp and BOGO. Those were building us up, getting us used to the camera and the workflow.”

Schism was a personal project because John’s father was suffering from Alzheimer’s and Dementia and they wanted to show the story “from the point of view of the afflicted.”

This required them to “show the experience, getting into the headspace of the person with the disease. And this was a challenging shoot because we could not build a long-term care facility on a zero budget. So we had to find an assisted living facility that would allow us to film and we had to get permission from the families of all the residents to be able to film there. We blurred the lines between documentary and fictional narrative” because families would agree for their loved ones to be extras in the film. 

“We filmed for 55 days over the course of a year when actors and crew were available.” They had a crew of 6 – John, Dorota, boom and lighting, and hair and make-up.

For There Are No Goodbyes, John said that Dorota had challenged him to write “something a bit beyond.” They had heard a story about two young people meeting and falling in love, so it was different from Schism but was still a zero budget film, with an opportunity to learn.

For this film, they were the crew. “We were operating the camera, running sound ourselves, and it was very intimate. It was a very small production.” The film was shot in the middle of nowhere, on film – because they weren’t able to buy or rent digital film equipment, and there weren’t many people around who wanted to make movies or get filmmaking experience.

“Looking at it on paper, There are No Goodbyes probably should have been our first feature because it was just the two of us just using 90% natural lighting, the scheduling was tighter and we were shooting with the locations and accessories that we had, and building the project around that.”

What did they learn from the two films?

John laughed, saying “this is no disrespect to anybody that worked with us, you have to be a certain level of crazy to work on films and sacrifice so much time and effort that really no one quite understands until they’re there on set. 

What we learned is that no one’s going to love your baby as much as you, even if you’re paying them. And it’s only really going to make it as far as you have that stamina and as far as your shoulders can hold that burden. You’ve got to drag it across the finish line.”

Dorota agreed, adding that “you need to be really desperate and determined to have that finish line in mind, and understand that working with different people requires you to be more flexible and understand people and their characters.”

Co-Directing

Dorota had already been doing the work of a co-director for years, when one of the producers suggested the idea to them. Besides the credits, and giving her more of ‘a voice’ on set, Dorota’s opinion was important as Unearth is a “female centric drama.”

John said that it was important, as a writer, for him to be able to polish the script and make sure that he “wasn’t that guy writing all these female voices and potentially getting it wrong.”

To find out more about how they made their film, why they used Kickstarter, and more of their filmmaking advice, listen here.

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