Recently, Film Editing Pro had the opportunity to interview Ken Adachi – director and co-writer of the award-winning feature film, Dead Dad. The film is a realistic and intimate look into the lives of three siblings as they cope with the death of their father.
In the interview that follows, we spoke with Ken about some of the creative and technical challenges he faced while creating the film.
We began writing the film in the fall of 2010, went into production the following summer and had our World Premiere at the Florida Film Festival in the spring of 2012.
It all began in the summer of 2010. I had just moved to Los Angeles, was broke and overly eager to make a feature length film. I approached a good friend of mine, Kyle Arrington, to co-write with me and when he pitched me a logline about siblings dealing with their father’s death I immediately latched on because it was a manageable idea for a shoestring budget production. At the time my goal was not to make a masterpiece, but to prove to myself that I was capable of directing a quality feature film and that was my motivation for the early stages of pre-production. No matter how daunting or impossible it seemed, I forged ahead and never looked back.
Q: Many of the scenes containing dialogue exchanges between the siblings felt very intimate and real. Their conversations felt very natural, not contrived or “written”. Can you talk about your writing process and how you were able to craft moments that felt so organic? Was there much improv on the set?
We had a strong script, but entered production knowing we had to be flexible with the material because of limited resources and time. We were dealing with a highly relatable topic and felt realism was the best style for the story we wanted to tell and part of achieving the naturalism was through improvisation. Though I prefer to call it controlled improvisation because the freedom given to the actors occurred during rehearsals and rarely during the actual takes. Most of what ended up in the final film was either written before production or with the actors through rehearsals.
Q: You employed a great deal of shallow depth of field camera work throughout the film. Was that a style choice or did it also serve other functions with regard to the emotional intentions of certain scenes?
It was a style choice for technical and creative reasons. On the most basic technical level, we wanted the shallow DOF to achieve a cinematic look while working in a digital realm. Creatively we found ourselves pushing the shallowness more and more to emphasize the loneliness the siblings were feeling through their grief.
Q: Can you talk a bit about the camera and lenses did you use while filming Dead Dad? Did you use any other filters or camera add-ons?
We shot primarily on the 5D Mark 2 with Nikon AI lenses. My DP, Eric Bader, used a lot of different filters: HD softs, gold fx, black pro mist and low con. I’m not as well versed on the technical aspect of this film, as I usually would be, because I entered production with the utmost confidence in Eric’s ability to capture the image we had pre-visualized… and also because we had no money or time; we couldn’t afford a monitor or the luxury to sit and watch playback all the time. I focused on the story and actors while he did the best he could with the gear we were able to provide him.
Q: You were able to achieve a very professional look and feel shooting with the 5D Mark 2. It’s definitely a great testament to the possibilities now available to lower budget filmmakers. Can you talk a bit more about some of the pros and cons of shooting a full-length feature on a DSLR and in what ways, if any, it affected your filming process?
We had chosen the camera and decided to go handheld for the majority of the film even before writing began. I knew we were going to be moving at lightning speed and the type of production shaped the style of the film in many ways. There really weren’t any cons to the camera, because we focused on the pros and used it to our advantage.
Like the camera, our crew was very minimal. On an average day, Eric Bader, our DP, had one AC and a gaffer at his disposal. This helped maintain an intimate set where the actors could thrive, especially during an emotional scene. The small size of the camera also allowed us to shoot a critical scene, the birthday party, with three cameras. Two of our ACs operated the B and C cameras, and we were able to cover over ten pages of the script in one day. I don’t believe this would’ve been possible with a bigger camera. We had three cameras with no assistants to measure/pull focus, but the handheld rigs for the DSLR made it possible.
Yes, we wish we had more time to control the image, and a camera that could capture a higher resolution would’ve been great, but we really embraced the DSLR for what it was. We didn’t do excessive amounts of takes so media storage was never an issue and it never interrupted takes. The small size of the camera allowed us to do a couple of moves on a lower end jib and slider, but most of the film was shot on sticks or was handheld.
Q: The scene transitions in Dead Dad felt very motivated and flowed well. There was always a movement, a sound effect or a glance that prompted a natural cut to the next scene. What was your planning process like in creating the opportunities for these natural transitions to occur – both while writing the scenes and deciding on your camera setups?
We were able to accomplish this because we were lucky enough to have our editor, Eric Ekman, be our sound recordist and a makeshift script supervisor (again we had very limited resources). Although we shot designed most of the film in pre-production we also did a lot of rewriting throughout the shoot and things would often get very chaotic. Eric was on set to maintain order and helped me make sure we were getting enough coverage for each scene. That often meant he was there to help design the transitions and develop the flow you are referring to.
Q: Filmmaking is obviously a complicated orchestration of many different components. What would you say were some of the biggest creative challenges you encountered while working on Dead Dad?
The most challenging aspect of the production was not creative, but the logistics of making a film with no money and very little time. We shot primarily over weekends and some weeknights depending on the availability of locations and actors. Once we entered production the majority of my energy was spent problem solving and rewriting the script to adapt to the changes caused by the improvisation. I was working fulltime during the shoot so I rarely slept for an entire month. I’m still not sure how we ended up with a coherent film, but I do know one thing for sure – it would not have been possible without our amazing cast and crew.
Q: Were there any occasions where you thought a scene would play one way (funny, sad, light-hearted) but when saw it in the editing room, it didn’t feel as intended? If so, how were you able to use the film editing process to help steer the scene back on course?
During the first weekend of the shoot I remember joking with my cast and crew that I didn’t realize we wrote a drama. When you’re dealing with death, at least in my experience, the performances naturally lean towards a darker tone especially when you are trying to tell a realistic story. Instead of fighting the actors’ urges we were constantly rewriting the script to infuse more humor and in some cases new scenes of light-heartedness were shot to balance the tone of the film. In the editing room all we had to do was reinforce the tone of the scene. I don’t recall ever needing to manipulate the tone of any of the scenes, but our editor should have more insight on that process.
Q: As many filmmakers know, the challenges of making a film doesn’t end when the film is complete. Getting your movie in front of an audience can sometimes feel even more difficult than creating it. It’s clear that you’ve done an outstanding job overcoming that hurdle — with Dead Dad being distributed on DVD and through numerous media channels such as Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, iTunes and others. Would you be willing to share a bit about the steps you took to arrange such a powerful media launch?
As a consumer I gravitate towards films with some level of prestige attached to them and that usually means festivals and awards. We scheduled the film to be completed by the first festival deadlines that would begin the following year and were lucky enough to get our World Premiere at the Florida Film Festival. We ended up screening at over twenty festivals around the world and won a few awards, which sparked the interest of various distributors.
Our distribution story is nothing out of the ordinary; it’s basically the plan that many independent filmmakers have. Premiere at a prestigious film festival and catch the attention of potential distributors.
Q: Are there any other thoughts or words of advice you’d like to share with other filmmakers after your experience making Dead Dad?
Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity to make a film. I think all filmmakers should experience making a shoestring budget feature at least once. If you fail, don’t give up. I’ve made plenty of short films I’m not particularly proud of, but I learned from the mistakes I made and it has made me a better filmmaker. Dead Dad was an amazing learning experience and I’m glad I made the film in the most difficult scenario I could’ve imposed on myself because it has given me more confidence to challenge myself further.
Film Editing Pro would like to thank Ken and congratulate his entire cast and crew and a job well done. Coming up is an interview with Dead Dad’s editor, Eric Ekman, where we’ll dive a bit deeper into the editorial techniques used throughout the film.
In the meantime, take a look at their trailer for the film.
Let us know what you think in the comments below!