Behind every successful film is usually a lengthy list of producers and associate partners. A savvy filmmaker understands what it means to discover, foster, and cement these lucrative and instrumental relationships. Securing a resourceful, competent, and benevolent cheerleader can oftentimes spell the difference between simply finishing a project, and enjoying the process of making a piece of art. For filmmaker Mars Roberge, winner of our We Make Movies Make Your Feature Competition, his trusted partner in crime on several projects (five in total) has been New York based Kenneth Shaw. The two have collaborated alongside associate producer Debra Haden (also Roberge's wife) on Roberge's past two feature films, and for Stars, added WMM and executive producer (and investor) Sam Mestman to the mix.
Aside from supporting Roberge on his cinematic endeavors, Shaw runs Four Shaw Entertainment, a full service film and video production company, producing promotional video for products and websites, commercial spots for local broadcast advertisements, internet content, independent artists' music videos, as well as short films, and sizzle reels. Commencing his production career at CBS, Shaw has worked in various capacities for several television news magazines such as 60 Minutes II, CBS Weekend News, The Early Show, and CBS: Up to the Minute News. Prior to CBS, he worked for outlets HBO (The Chris Rock Show), Comedy Central, and Viva Variety.
We stole a moment of Shaw's time and asked him what it was like shooting an indie, micro-budget film in a pandemic on the streets of NYC. In summation, it wasn't easy, but it was certainly worthwhile. We'll let him and Roberge give us the scoop on what really went down on the set of Stars! Read on...
WMM: What draws you to producing, Ken?
KS:What draws me to producing is creativity. Producing gives you the chance to create taking an idea that was a thought in your head (or someone else's), putting it to paper, and watching it go to the big screen in a theater. In between the paper and screen is where the producer's job is crucial. I love bringing it all together. WMM: What qualities do you find to be the biggest assets to you as a producer? KS: Patience. I believe patience and understanding are included in a few of my biggest assets. Example, when looking for a venue to be the homeless shelter we approached many hotels and mainly hostels. Probably close to 50 or 60. I knew the importance of getting the location. We needed that look - multiple rooms, bunkbeds and so on. Many of the hotels and hostels were concerned about how the establishment would be represented on film. So first it took lots of patience pitching and explaining, and understanding venue owners and management concerns. Then we had to reassure them that it's simply entertainment and promotional advertisement, and that everything else comes along with it, especially if the film is a success.
We ended up using the Q4 Hotel in Long Island City, Queens, and just to clarify, its a really nice, clean, upscale hotel and hostel with a beautiful kitchen, dining area and lounge. It is not a homeless shelter. We used room 105 or 106 - maybe they can name it the "Stars Bunkbed Suite" - and charge more money for it.. I dunno, lol! WMM: What is it about Mars and/or his projects that compel you to produce his films? Is there something particularly special/personal about Stars for you?
KS: Mars and I have been friends for many years before we started working on films together. I was an NYC party promoter and he was a pretty popular NYC DJ. He'd DJ my parties as well. All in all, I admire Mars' uniqueness. He's not afraid to try something new or different from the norm and make it make sense. If anything though, liking the concept it's me who will question and ask things like, "are you sure our society is ready for this?" And he'll answer, "Sure. Why not?" For example, when he came up with the title for the film Scumbag.
I wanted to work on Stars because it touches on homelessness and mental illness, and I have friends going through similar situations. Stars is our 4th collaboration on the World Domination Pictures side and technically our 5th collaboration from the Four Shaw Entertainment side.
WMM: There's a saying that "there's the movie you write, the one you shoot, and the one you edit." Since you (Mars) are doing all three on this project, did you shoot to edit? Are you constructing a different version of the film from what was originally envisioned in the script?
MR: Out of all my films, this one is closest to the actual screenplay but we (story editor Patty Powers and executive producer Sam Mestman) helped me tweak the screenplay to give it more of a backstory before shooting. I’m also fairly early in the editing stage (just finished up the first cut) to know if we end up juggling anything later in the sequence order. The few things I can never put on paper are my musical elements or montages (or do it any justice on paper). That’s where the editing and cinematography work their magic and it’s usually a big part of all my films, and in many ways, my signature style. Stars definitely has that and we have some really killer establishing shots that we lucked out in stumbling across when we were filming --- where I stopped everyone, grabbed a camera, and did some unplanned scenes right there. Some of our best shots worked out that way. Oh, and one of my favorite scenes includes a real NYC rat—I’ll leave it at that!
WMM: What did you each forecast would be the most challenging aspects of pulling off this production (while in pre-production)? Once shooting began, what were the challenges you faced (and how did you overcome/resolve them)?
MR: Honestly, my biggest fear of this whole production was COVID, especially after my original grip came down with it in Canada and needed to be replaced a few days before the shoot. Luckily none of us got it. I was so paranoid I remember thinking I was planning to sleep in a mask, but you know how it goes, that never happened. We were very diligent on set though about all the COVID rules and had a COVID officer despite NYC removing the mask mandate before we started shooting.
As for most challenging thing in pre-production, let’s see, within weeks (or days) I lost a main supporting actor and a main support actress, a grip, a 1st AC, a DIT, a 1st AD, a wardrobe stylist, a 2nd AD, and a vehicle. Then I found out how much Ubers, car rentals, and food went up in NYC (25-50%) since I shot my last film (Mister Sister) there back in 2020. I guess everyone was making up for the money loss during the pandemic. Luckily, for me, I was able to bounce back by pulling from the talent pool from my last couple of films (which were all shot in NYC). I also took on most of the wardrobe duties (with the help of Steffanie Finn, who kept me organized) and all of the 1st assistant director duties (I might be the only one who does this). The cast were an amazing help too, in that they all styled themselves / shopped etc. with my help via FaceTime.
KS: Yes, Covid testing during the production and Covid in general because we never experienced that before. We had to test every third day and were hoping no one got sick - especially the actresses - because we didn't have backups. Mars and I had a plan. He would have directed using FaceTime and I had an assistant who would have filled in, but nothing for talent. We just went with it.
We had many challenges - from production vehicles with flat tires on the way to locations that only allowed us two and three hours to film, to sound equipment getting stolen. We overcame it by pushing on and not giving up. And mainly teamwork.
WMM: What aspects of collaborating with WMM gave you the support you needed to move the production along ?
MR: It was great. Having the sponsorships from Aputure for lighting gear, from Apple for a DIT computer, from OWC for Thunderbay T3 32 TB drives (two of them) and a new powerful iMAC computer (along with a copy of FCP X) all hooked up through WMM, cut down on the cost massively - and really sped up our workflow.
As for the WMM crew, Ben Hamer flew out from Chicago to work through half of it and literally did everything from 1st AC, shoot BTS, PA, and help in every aspect keeping the team morale up with his positive vibe. Allyson Sereboff was a massive help with continuity (I’d be in a continuity mess without her) and she helped the cast tremendously as a script supervisor constantly calling out lines. Because this was based on a play, it was the most dialogue heavy film I’ve ever made, with the most memorization needed for cast members. One of our cast, Spookey Ruben, leaned into me after shooting his scene and said “I never had to say eight pages of lines for a scene until today.” (We were all thrilled with his outcome.)
Allyson also prepped all the metadata for the footage so in-house WMM editor Mathew Roscoe could sync it up and prep the multi-cam sequences in Final Cut Pro X for me later. I have never had an “assistant editor” on any of my films so having the film ready to be edited on a timeline saved me about three weeks of work that I usually have to do myself (I edit all my films). Mathew and Sam (Mestman) gave me a crash course on FCP X (which we cut on and were also sponsored by), and Mathew took tons of my calls every time I got stuck with anything. Sam has a great eye for detail, helped me tremendously with the screenplay, and is currently helping with the edit. I’m now pretty familiar with the program and like it (especially since it’s not a cloud-service program).
Eric Michael Kochmer schooled me on working with unions and permits (showing it wasn’t as bad as I thought), kept the cast happy and fed, and took over the intense duties of the DIT when we had nobody else to do it. He had a way to keep the cast and crew positive and was all about the DIY aspects of indie filmmaking.
Élan Swanson (CFO of WMM) took care of the payroll and paid out all the expenses, while I had several eyes on the budget so we could keep track of everything. For my previous films, I handled all of this (with producer Kenneth Shaw) but I usually didn’t have time over all the line items in my final budget until sometimes almost a year after shooting, prepping 1096 forms, etc. This time we are all settled up already and there is no guesswork moving forward.
Cate Caplin (one of the other competition investors) was our dance choreographer, and did an amazing job. Between President Aubrey Mozino, Mathew and Sapna Gandhi, I have had a great PR push that I wouldn’t have usually started on my own until at least a few months from now, when I’m long done with my editing and can dedicate extra time towards it. Basically, We Make Movies filled in the blanks to take this film to the next level, and I’m really grateful to have them around (and for funding the film, of course). [Editor's Note: Awww shucks, we adore you right back, Mars!]
KS: Working with Eric Michael Kochmer and Allyson Sereboff definitely gave support to production to help move it along. Eric conducted the weekly, nightly production meetings via Zoom during pre-production so we covered any and all things that would come up during production. Allyson was instrumental on set. She helped with many duties - whatever needed to be done she jumped right in. And I can't forget production assistant (and so much more) Ben Hamer. He's a very hard worker!
WMM:What surprised you throughout the process of making this film, Mars? On set? Your cast? Yourself?
MR: How do I say this without offending anyone? Everything was way beyond (performance wise) what I had ever expected. It’s like I was being hustled during rehearsals. Lol. I knew everyone was good, but man, they were amazing! It’s like they were saving their energy for when we actually shot. I couldn’t be happier with it. I keep wondering which actors will win awards because they ALL should. I have had several situations in the past where it goes the opposite once I yell "action". This group lived for being in front of the camera and they all played off of each other’s chemistry. There was one scene where Debra Haden tackles Sophia Lamar and they fight on the ground. I actually yelled "cut" because I thought it was a real fight, and they looked at me like I was crazy. Lol. Other scenes where women were crying, I also thought it was real and that they were going through something. Everything was THAT believable.
As for myself, I was worn down and beat up by day two. Not having my regular 1st AD (Eric Ragan) there killed me, and I also blame my exhaustion on the pandemic (I have worked from home for almost three years now and NEVER leave my house — it’s like I live in a submarine). So getting up to go work on a film set every day for ten days in a row killed me. I remember on day two or three thinking it was day seven – I couldn’t believe it and really wondered how I was going to get through it. Luckily, I did. :)
WMM:What inspired you on this set and what types of projects are you hoping to produce in the future, Ken?
KS: It was nice to work with such a terrific cast and crew. HipHop Artist Rah Digga was great to work with! She really took on and exceeded her role! Debra Haden, my good friend as well, is always great to work with. She takes her roles to a whole 'nother level. She's a really good actress. She, Mars, and myself always have a good time, and whenever they leave NYC I hate to see them leave. It was definitely a pleasure to work with Sophia Lamar for the first time! Miley Rose is full of laughter and takes her roles seriously. She and I actually had a scene in Stars together. You'll have to wait and see it! Eva Dorrepaal is super sweet and very pleasant to work with. Great actress as well. Meredith Binder did a great job. Had a lot of fun working with her. I'm currently working on a theatrical stage play and am in development to produce a television sizzle reel this summer.
WMM: If you could make this film all over again, what would you do differently? (We know you're still in post... )
MR: I would have gotten about two more production assistants to help (who could get themselves to and from set — we ran out of seats in our vehicles). I would also have a designated 1st AD to go over all my notes and run that job on set. Other than that, it actually went the way all my films go, and my regular crew/cast knew what to expect. Anyone who wants to see, just go rent Mister Sister on Vimeo, and download the extra 2.5 hours of behind-the-scenes film.
WMM:Who do you want to market this film to and why? What are your aspirations for the film? KS: Women - it's an all female cast, but really it's for everyone. We can all learn something from this film - like be happy with what you have. That resonates with everyone. My aspirations for the film are to get it into a few reputable film festivals, and eventually get it picked up and most certainly make money.
MS: I binge watched Orange Is The New Black and I’m sure that the same audience would love this film, but at the same time fans of art cinema that attend esteemed festivals like Cannes, Berlinale, and Rotterdam should love this film too. I’ve slowly created my own audience from the punk rock world (see my film Scumbag on Amazon or Tubi), the nightclub world (from my many years of DJing and all the nightclub celebs I’ve cast over the years), the LGBTQ world (from Mister Sister and The Little House That Could). I'm a rebellious filmmaker that doesn’t follow trends or people. If I didn’t think this wasn’t an original idea that hasn’t been done (or overdone), I wouldn’t be making this film. I like to turn heads.
Sapna Gandhi is an actor, singer-songwriter, and content creator. In addition to TV credits such as BOSCH, SHAMELESS and SCANDAL, she has appeared in numerous shorts, features, and series, including festival darlings IN ABSENTIA (Raindance) and THUMPER (Tribeca). Gandhi has produced several series and films under the umbrella of her production company Elegant Grotesque (most recently SCRAP, starring Anthony Rapp and Vivian Kerr, and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds’ STRANDED ON THE EARTH, directed by Mike Bruce). She is also 1/2 of the musical duo, VATAVARAN, was born in England, raised all over the states, studied English and Women’s Studies, and trained at the American Conservatory Theatre in SF.