Making Of is a Q&A with writer/director Jeffrey Stoltzfus.
Q: When did you start writing Victim’s Song?
A: October, 2004.
Q: Where did the idea come from?
A: My failure as a filmmaker. (laughs) I had finished my first feature, Misdirected. A comedy/murder mystery. We had a lot of complex locations and a very short shooting schedule. We were probably a little too optimistic in its execution. A crew member joked they wouldn’t shoot another movie with me unless it was all in one location. And that’s how it started.
I pictured one location. A house. And the person in it couldn’t leave. That person become Eric Chandler and all the details that got him there became Victim’s Song.
Q: But it’s not all in one location.
A: The more I wrote the Bucky and Travis characters the more I began to love them and really wanted to show their worlds. I grew out of one location pretty quickly and never looked back.
Q: What was the goal of the script?
A: I wanted to make a water-cooler movie. Something that people would have opinions on and want to discuss. To me those are the best kinds of movies. If you forget a movie five minutes after you see it that to me is a waste of time. I love movies that evoke conversation.
Q: What films influenced the writing process?
A: Taxi Driver for sure. I really liked the tone and mood that it set. I wasn’t going to copy that film but I wanted to create my own identity through tone as well. I tried to accomplish this through pace and the way in which I delivered some twists. When filming we added another layer with the look of the cinematography.
I left a number of odes to Taxi Driver throughout Victim’s Song. Some were obvious, like a character named Travis. Others were more subtle, hidden in various props and set design.
Q: Did you always intend to direct?
A: I consider myself a director first and a writer second. I wrote Victim’s Song to direct it.
Q: So the script is finished. What now?
A: Panic. As I realized I had written a script with police stations, and children, and gun play. The circle of needs had grown.
The script was set during Thanksgiving. My plan was to start shooting in September. So I could shoot all the outdoor work early and move inside before it got too cold or rainy. Mind you I was just outside Philadelphia and weather could reek havoc on our production on any given day.
That meant I had about eight months to raise money, find cast and crew, and get equipment and locations. No problem.
Q: What was the budget and where did it come from?
A: The estimated budget was $25,000. I was meticulous about accounting for every dollar spent. I say estimated budget only because it’s hard to know when you really stop spending. But $25,000 is about what it took for production.
A number of other factors also come into play. I was working a full time job, as was most of the crew and cast I’d eventually get. For this reason our production schedule was limited to shooting weekends only. This sporadic schedule made renting equipment from the local rental houses quite expensive. In the end I decided it was cheaper to buy the equipment just prior to the shoot and then sell it off after.
I had no idea how to raise money. I heard a story once about Sam Raimi asking doctors and the like for financing for The Evil Dead. That sounded like a plan to me. By this point I had already taken on Russ J. Lichterman as my producer. We both worked at the local television news station. Creatively we meshed and he knew how to get things done. We set out to pitch our movie to people with money. First stop, a lawyer.
I wish I could say he donated the full $25,000 and we were on our way. Instead he informed us that what we were doing was illegal. He was kind enough to warn us about something called the SEC. Instead of financing we got a free consultation. He left us with this, “If you don’t already know them, you can’t take their money.” I believe it was due to the amount we were trying to raise.
Mind you this is winter 2005. Kickstarter wouldn’t exist for another 4 years. Oh if only…
Our spirits were dampened but we persisted, asking everyone we knew for money. We had as many awkward conversations as we could but failed to raise any substantial money. The months fell off the calendar. All the while we were also still trying to place together locations, cast, crew, and a lot more. We were trying to raise an army and build a house, all without a bankroll. We took on an associate producer with the explicit goal of financing. She scoured the internet for grants to no avail. Victim’s Song just didn’t qualify for anything.
Of course there was always one last resort. Like I said, this was my second film. The first cost $6,000 and was entirely put on my credit card. It took a couple years and a lot of holiday overtime but I had just paid it off prior to Victim’s Song. I had no desire to go $25,000 into debt. I was pretty sure it was something I wouldn’t recover from. Of course my mind flooded with thoughts of Kevin Smith’s experience with Clerks, and the lengths to which Robert Rodriguez went to make El Mariachi.
By summer most of the preproduction pieces had come into place. Everything but the money. It was no longer avoidable. If I wanted to make my movie I needed credit cards, and lots of them. I was in my 20’s so it’s not like I had one credit card that could handle the whole thing. Some people collect baseball cards. I collected credit cards. I had eight of them. I fanned them out like a poker hand.
I now had the ability to buy equipment. Tape stock. Production insurance. Rent a police car. Buckets of fake blood. And a whole lot more.
Q: How did you choose your equipment?
A: I chose the Canon XL-2 to shoot on. I wanted the freedom to select different lenses. Most cameras in our price range had a fixed lenses but not the XL-2. This was a crucial choice as we used several different lenses during production to achieve our look. Once again this was 2005 so HD had not taken over the market yet. So sadly Victim’s Song never had the chance to be shot in HD. Something that would later come back to haunt me.
Some equipment was as gonzo as you can get. My father built a PVC pipe dolly for us but there was a noticeable shake as it rolled over the seems in the PVC track. So I disassembled a Radio Flyer wagon and affixed the wheels to the platform my father had built. It became our doorway dolly and we used it a lot. Every day of production my Subaru Forester would get loaded to the brim with equipment and the dolly would get strapped to the roof.
We used everything from 1K fresnel studio lights to home depot work lights. Whatever was in reach.
Q: Where did you get your crew?
A: The primary crew was composed of people I had worked with before. Either on Misdirected, one of my short films, or they were a current co-worker at the television station. But I still needed more. Luckily the Philadelphia Film Office was a great resource. I posted on their website as well as Craigslist. Between the two I was able to fill most of the remaining crew positions. Unfortunately I had to fire our production designer just a couple weeks prior to shooting. This meant I took on all his responsibilities. As if directing wasn’t time consuming enough I now had to worry about props, graphic design, set dressing, and wardrobe.
Q: Where did you get your cast?
A: We had five open casting calls and saw over 200 actors. Of course we didn’t have any offices. So our auditions were held in a number of places including a dance studio and a supermarket. It was kind of funny to watch people leave the audition an then shop for dinner.
We were extremely lucky to find the cast that we did. After “solving” the financing situation the only thing that was going to stop production was if I couldn’t find a proper Eric, Bucky, and Travis. Luckily I found exactly what I was looking for.
Q: Where did you get your locations?
A: Most of our locations were obtained simply by asking. A few by begging. One of the stranger locations was a working police station. We also had to get a bit crafty for Eric Chandler’s house. There were actually four different locations that composed that house. The basement belonged to my parents. It’s the house I grew up in. And yes, that’s the location I begged for.
We shot in Russ’s mom’s house too. We even shot in the home of one of our actors.
Q: Did anyone get paid?
A: Everyone’s pay was deferred pending a distribution deal. And sadly that never came. Everyone in the cast and crew poured their blood, sweat, and tears into making Victim’s Song the best it could be. We all wanted great things from it. It remains a labor of love.