Writer, actor, filmmaker, jury member, and festival director, Anthony Straeger has (and continues to) donned several hats. We couldn’t miss the opportunity to interview a man who has held such a diverse portfolio. From his becoming a BAFTA jury member to his process in scripting, Straeger takes us through his professional journey. Blunt, honest, and informative, Straeger doesn’t pull any punches.
Read along and discover industry insights, useful tips and candid confessions that we are sure will aid you in your filmmaking career.
- We have to begin by asking you this: How did you come by having such a diverse portfolio? Actor, director, writer, jury member… There seems to be hardly any that you haven’t dabbled into yet.
It wasn’t intentional or planned, to answer you truthfully.
From my early days as an actor, it was never my intention or thought to become a writer or director, etc. But the road we take is never a straight one and opportunities simply present themselves, don’t they? It’s then a choice we make essentially; whether to take one or let go of the other. Writing and directing was a correlated discovery. But, producing came out of a chance meeting.
However, becoming a film festival director stemmed from working as an actor on a web series called Mission Backup Earth. I became good friends with the director and his 1st AD. She eventually set-up a festival called Webfest Berlin. As she needed a moderator and warm-up guy for the festival she asked me if I was available. From there I worked at the festival for the next three years. During this time the director of the web series (genre-specific: a sci-fi) thought: ‘Germany hasn’t got a genre-specific sci-fi film festival’. We should do that! And we did! Four years later, here we are.
Life sure is a box of chocolates!
- Life sure is! And, how did BAFTA come about in these assortments? How did you come to be a jury member of BAFTA?
I became a member of BAFTA when I was working for a company called Circle Multimedia. The company was involved in the development and production of a TV series called Wire in the Blood (2002–2009). As part of the company, they facilitated me as a producer to apply for membership. It was that simple.
- That’s quite a trajectory. So would it be fair to assume that being an actor, director and writer has influenced your approach or understanding of the craft of filmmaking?
It’s true that I trained as an actor; but I was okay, nothing exceptional. But after working on a BBC TV series that had several issues in its production, I thought to myself that I could do better than the person directing. So I started writing. I went to a good writers course and by the end of it, I had my first script ready. That was all I needed then. I jumped right in and made a film on Beta Video. Through the process, I learned more about acting from that short film than I did at drama school. I understood the mistakes that I made as an actor and I improved from thereon. So, in effect, it’s acting that led me to scriptwriting, which then took me to directing.
Once you start cross-pollinating the three aspects you can see your failings and mistakes. From there you can improve your writing, acting and directing. I might sound cynical when I say this, but, I’ve always found that you learn more when things go wrong than when things go right.
If you are making a short independent film, invariably the director is the producer. One mistake you often see from young filmmakers is that they’re making a film with the intentions of being the lead actor. Clint Eastwood can do this. After all, he has a multi-million dollar budget and has some of the finest crew in the world at his disposal. But when you are making a low budget film you often settle for the best you can get. By wearing too many hats, the production is more than likely going to fail. You cannot act in a film and be objective when cutting it. Working with a production company on a major TV series wasn’t the best personal experience I had. But it certainly helped me in seeing what having a lot more money feels like and does too, especially when it is not yours that you are spending.
- Going back to your writing: Between writing screenplays and writing non-fiction books, which has been more rewarding? And, which has been most difficult?
I have a very creative and yet practical need. Writing screenplays and writing non-fiction books is and was a challenge. Both are difficult, both are rewarding.
But I think people these days have become obsessed with social media instant gratification and the look-at-me culture. Though it is a delight when something turns successful, it is the creation of it wherein its joy really lies. I love writing screenplays because I can exorcise my demon(s) through a cathartic process. Storytelling is an extension of the games played in childhood. We use it to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others. You can consider them to be ‘the signal within the noise’ and they can be so powerful that we can detect story patterns even when they’re not there.
Both of my books have been non-fiction, which is interesting in itself. I am practical-minded, and like solutions to problems, while also helping others to solve their problems. My first book, ‘Managing Your Time and Becoming Happier‘, was produced because I always felt there is a bad energy about time management. It is a subject that needs to be understood, especially when you are a filmmaker. Time is money. Time is easily lost waiting for a battery that hasn’t been charged the night before the shoot, and so on. Finding ways to solve production problems, meeting your deadlines and project management is never easy. But by utilizing simple tricks and mechanisms you can release a lot of stress.
My new book ‘An Independent Filmmakers Guide To Preparing & Submitting To Film Festivals’ is a product of what I have gathered in years as a festival director. I have learnt from the many mistakes made as a filmmaker. With experience, my time management skills have certainly improved, but I am still learning about what’s needed to make film festival proof films. As a result, I have probably wasted thousands of dollars, but earned enough in terms of wisdom to be shared — which will eventually find its release in writing.
- What is your scripting process like? Arbitrarily, how many revisions should one consider before finalising their writing?
There is no specific number of how many revisions you can or should do. In the case of my book, I spent 2 months writing it and 13 months revising it. My thought is there are mistakes in the book that are bound to have missed my proofing editor and my own radar.
As for scriptwriting, I am not Aaron Sorkin. I have no idea how long and how many revisions he does, but for me, I like to have the script read by other people. My process is as follows:
- First Draft: Leave it for at least two weeks.
- Second Draft: Read, edit and rewrite it. If I am happy with it, I will send it to four or five friends. They then read and give feedback. Some offer general and some very specific advice(s).
- Third Draft: Review comments and critique and rewrite. The next stage is having a read through. I cannot stress enough to debut filmmakers/writers that this is the best way of understanding how your story is working. I video this and watch and listen back several times.
- Fourth Draft: Full revision and rewrite. If at this point I am truly happy with it, I will send it to the Producers or Industry professionals I know. This is where you get feedback that really sharpens your script.
The fourth stage only applies to feature scripts. But for a short film, having at least two read-throughs with either friends or potential cast will really help in your vision of the film and how it will sound.
- That’s heavy investment in time and resources. Do you then find it easy or not to revisit your completed works?
Once a production has been completed and it has run its course in festivals, then as far as I am concerned, the game is over. Before I move on, I like to reflect on what was and was not achieved during the festival run. Was it as successful as I’d hoped? Which of the feedbacks received was most valuable? By doing this it improves my own knowledge of filmmaking and distribution. Over the years I have made several shorts that I thought were good, but for some reason failed at festivals. I’ve also had films that once completed, were a total disappointment to me, but for some reason, did really well on the circuit. Making films as an independent filmmaker is the best master class or course you can give yourself.
Having said that, I have recently started to revisit works. This is due to the platform — Amazon Video Prime Direct. It is a slow process and I am adding films one at a time. So I review each film and create new artwork. Along with this, I have had to create SRT files and improve the specifications. So far, I’ve uploaded three films that have yielded over 20 views at 99 cents each. The way I look at it, that’s twenty bucks I didn’t have before.
- That’s really fascinating, Anthony. But, now moving from scripting to directing, take us back to what your first directorial venture was like?
My first creative role came from my desire to direct. I utilized the writing course to produce my first short film script entitled ‘The one that I came in for’. The script centred around three couples. I had watched each couple in different bars at different times. The whole creative process of making the schedule, finding sponsors, casting actors and crew was a joy. Once I had enough money, I set my dates and shot it over one weekend.
Post-production was another thing altogether. Softwares and editing were not so easy in those days and I had to hire a professional post house. Because I could only get downtime (10 PM – 7 AM) it took two months to get the edit completed. Before that, I wrote and recorded the soundtrack at a studio. That was another fun lock-in. I had several guitarists, singers and drummers that helped me out for beer and pizza! I have fond memories of the whole process and I learned so much.If your (film's) sound is bad, it will automatically be rejected. We have done this with about 20 films already in 2020 alone. Click To Tweet
- From your experience then, where would you say that debut filmmakers usually go wrong and what tips could you suggest to remedy it?
From a festival point of view, there are three areas where debut filmmakers usually go wrong. Credits, pacing and sound.
I have lost count on the number of jury members that write this statement: “This would have been good if it was about a third shorter.” It’s the pace they are referring to, here. Watching shots and scenes that don’t progress the story only causes the viewer to lose interest.
Make a film with impact and maintain the pace. Lose unnecessary credits as nobody has any interest other than the cast and crew. It sounds harsh but when you have a 12-minute film with 3-minutes of credits and the story could be cut by a third, you have a 6-minute short – Boom! You will already be more appealing to the judges.
Debut filmmakers should think about grabbing the attention early on in the film and not fill the intro with unnecessary credits (and this is a major issue we have!). The number of films that start with nothing much happening overlaid with credits for the director and starring Arthur Nobody is truly unbelievable. And then they finish a short film with 3 minutes of credits at the end. Remember, you are an independent filmmaker, not a Hollywood giant.
- Have an opening with impact and gain the jury and your potential audience’s interest.
- Lose unnecessary credits and keep them to a minimum at the end of the film.
- Find the beat of the story and don’t get caught up in images that do not progress the story. Keep the pace up.
There is one more item I should really add. If your sound is bad, it will automatically be rejected. We have done this with about 20 films in 2020 alone. That is a lot of wasted time and money for filmmakers.
- This is incredibly valuable. Thank you for sharing it. Now, as a festival director, you must have been privy to numerous screenings. Which films stayed with you? Which genre do you think is the toughest to crack?
I feel that comedy is one of the hardest areas to succeed in. One film that did this as both Sci-fi and Horror was a feature film called Canaries (2017) by Peter Stray. I have to tell you, it has received surprisingly poor ratings on IMDb – a pity, that! It only goes to prove how subjective film viewing is. The plot revolved around the first wave of an alien invasion, coinciding with a New Years Eve party set in a Welsh valley. This film was down to earth fun, had solid acting, good plot and was well written, not to mention, the pacing was sharp too. It managed to achieve a high-end result despite being on a low-end budget. (I watched it again in my kitchen with headphones. The neighbours must have thought I’d gone mad with my laughing out loud!)
That plot indeed sounds interesting. What about a short film that had a similar effect on you?
A short film… I’d say, it’s the one that gave a fantastic tribute to the sci-fi movies of the ’80s – Think Blade Runner. Slice of Life (2019) is written, directed and produced by Dino Julius and Luka Hrgovic (Croatia). It’s about a low-life drug dealer who tried to turn his life around but finds himself at the mercy of a cop who has an agenda of his own. The whole movie was made in a garage. It used only practical effects, including matt painting and back projection. There was no CGI/VFX involved at all in this production! And, as far as I know, this story and its team have been picked up to turn it into a feature.
The fact that I can recall all of its specifics, only goes to prove how impactful I found the film to be!
- Moving from the acting, writing and directing, to the role of a producer. What does being a producer really mean? The portfolio despite being prolific is seldom understood right.
In the real world, the film producer plans and coordinates various aspects of the production. If they are working from a commissioning company, then it includes selecting and buying scripts. But essentially it involves coordinating the writing, directing, editing and arrange finance. In a low budget film, it should include building the crowdfunding for finance and not the editing as most directors have the software and edit their films.
In my old productions, I had the pleasure of using a good friend. He was a project manager by trade. So his organisation and time management skills helped the production run smoothly.
Of course, if you can get an ‘Executive Producer’ then that is a result! Because it means they have access to cash, either personally or have the capability to raise it. The joke credit is ‘Associate Producer’. You give this to someone who hasn’t invested in the film. Maybe they helped you with scheduling or did something kind for you, paid enough on your crowdfunding to justify the title. It is used as a political thing. For example, your friend works in insurance and he knows someone who would like a small role in your film for an investment in your production. So you offer them the credit. It applies to anyone working on the film.
- This has been quite a revelation. Before letting you go, on a final note, what advice would you give budding filmmakers?
Two main aspects affect both, feature films and shorts: Time and Money. For a feature film, you will need more money and more time than a short. If we are talking low budget filmmaking, then when you start with a feature film there is always the possibility of losing cast and crew due to the time involved. You can generally shoot about 4 to 6 minutes of script per day. So with luck, a 12-minute short film will take 2 to 3 days to shoot. If your feature is 84 pages that is a minimum of 16 days and you will probably need up to 20.
How you manage your time and money is crucial to the success of the film. It affects how you treat your cast and crew. An army travels on its stomach, so you need to make sure they are fed and watered very well on a feature. In a short film, you can get away with it a little more.
What surprises me is how often Murphy’s Law applies. Meaning, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. But, there are three things you need in your production:
1 – Preparation
2 – Preparation
3 – Preparation
Because it helps eliminate the possibilities of Murphy’s Law applying to you! What amazes and surprises me, is that no matter how hard you do prepare, something will go wrong. But if you are ill-prepared, you could end up in your worst nightmare, an incomplete film and an empty pocket.
Pragmatic, accessible and eager to share his insights; that’s Anthony Straeger for you. His latest book, An Independent Filmmakers Guide To Preparing & Submitting To Film Festivals is out now and available on Amazon.
Want to learn more about Anthony? Click here.
If you liked this, check out our interview with filmmaker Anna Remus who made it to the top 5 of the ScriptED Sundance Writing Challenge as she discusses action, female-centric films and more.