Even though the only work we've seen from Jeff Wedding is "A Measure of the Sin", it was such an interesting and beautifully shot film that it was instantly added to our Best of 2013 list. It's often an overused saying when it comes to film reviews, but you genuinely do not see movies like "A Measure of the Sin" anymore. With the film's impending release from BrinkVision, we decided to talk with unbelievably nice and generous, Jeff Wedding, to find out what it takes to make a movie like "A Measure of the Sin".
First, I just want to thank you, Jeff, for taking the time to do this interview. To get things started, do you mind telling us a bit about your background and what made you decided to become a filmmaker?
Thank you for asking me. My decision to become a filmmaker is generally boring, and in many ways very similar to others making films today – I love movies. My father would show all kinds of films to my brother, Steve and me while I was growing up. While I love all movies, I’ve always been more drawn to darker films. I grew up in Evansville, IN and was studying to be an architect. Steve convinced me we should abandon the colleges we were going to there and move to Nashville because they had the closest film school. A few months after we arrived in Nashville we realized we didn’t really want to waste tuition money (which we didn't actually have) on learning how to make a film when we could just go out and make one, so that’s what we did.
Was there a specific filmmaker or artist that inspired you?
Many of them have, but I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily conscious of where certain influences or inspirations come from. I think as a filmmaker many things fasten themselves to a dormant part of our brain and they tend to awaken when something similar crosses our minds. I only recently realized how inspired by Mike Figgis’s film The Loss of Sexual Innocence I was while making "A Measure of the Sin". It’s a film I’ve seen many, many times, and I love it, but I didn’t really think to myself “I’m doing this like that film”. The films aren’t similar in narrative in any way, but the form had kind of been turned upside down in both of them. Figgis’s film is full of symbolism and a broken story that jumps around in time. Both films also rely heavily on imagery, which I think is such an important part of films for me. There’s much more to making a great film outside of having a great script and great cast, although that’s a fine place to start. I really love filmmakers from every genre. Adrian Lyne, for example, is a director more people should be talking about. For me he’s one of the best there has been. Of course I would mention all of the usual suspects like Kubrick, Bergman, Hitchcock, etc. The list goes on and on and you hear the same names over and over, but guys like Figgis and Lyne, among others, are great to me.
Where did you start with your filmmaking? Was it with short films like most others?
I actually dove into a feature head first. I’ve since made a handful of shorts to find my voice or hone my craft so-to-speak, but I got my start back in 2001 when I co-wrote and co-directed a thriller called "Blind". We shot it on 16mm and I’ve been shooting the format since. At that point in time one wasn't taken very seriously unless you shot on film. The movie went on to get a video distribution deal and it was my film school. A short film really can’t be compared to a feature much in the same way a short story can’t be compared to a novel. There’s an art to both and they are two very different animals. Making a feature film, especially with little to no money, is an absolute endurance test. A short is something you can do in a day or on the weekend and hope something happens with it. With a feature there’s much more at stake in terms of money spent on the production and the possibility of a career.
At the time you were filming "Blind", were you concerned about the movie helping to start your and your brother's career in film or was there too much else going on to be thinking that far ahead? I guess what I mean is, were you more concerned about finishing the movie than what the outcome was going to be of having made a movie?
There was a little of both. I know going into it we were just like every other naïve, disillusioned early-twenties filmmaker that was doing it – we were hoping our film would be the next Sundance smash and that everyone would give us millions of dollars to make our next film. Of course that’s not how the story went. We managed to gather around twenty grand or something, which was enough to get the film shot (we figured we’d worry about coming up with the rest later), and by day two we were miserable and tired with seventeen days left. We finally settled into a groove and managed to get the film shot with minimal snags. Once photography was completed we were out of money, so the film literally sat in my fridge for nine long months. I decided if we could come up with two grand we could get a few rolls processed and cut a trailer to entice investors. The plan worked and we got another ten or twelve grand within a couple of weeks. Once we began editing things weren’t exactly as we expected, but we finished the picture, got a distribution deal and, MOST IMPORTANTLY, we learned how to make a movie. It wasn’t a critical success, but it put the fundamental tools in place so that I could make something better the next time out.
What do you think has been the most valuable lesson, or lessons, you've learned by going out and just making your own movie as opposed to going to school?
There’s a tremendous amount of freedom when it comes to “just going out and doing it.” There are no safety nets and if you fail you fail. Teachers and professors are a little too precious about the idea of failure, I think. I know the best lessons I’ve learned have come from making mistakes. That holds true for both film and life. If you harness a mistake and really think about why it happened, chances are you won’t make the same one again. Not going to film school, however, made it a bit more difficult finding crew, etc. One advantage I see from students coming out of film school is that they are generally armed with a good amount of contacts – that’s one thing I didn’t have until later on. Making a feature-length movie is hard, school or no school. I do think it’s easier to find one’s own voice by just going out and making your own movie, though.
You've worked as cinematographer on most of your own work. Was that an area if you've always been interested in or was it something you decided to do in order to, more or less, help maintain control of your vision?
It’s been a little of both. I’ve never had a real budget to make a film with, so I began shooting my own films out of necessity because I began feeling awful about always asking for freebies. The more I started to do so I realized it’s much easier for me to create a look myself than having to try and explain that to another cameraman. A lot of that also has to do with the fact I don't think I'm a very good communicator in those terms. I'm not great at shooting film, but I can do it well enough to get the story told. I’ve always had an attraction to the cinematographer. When I was younger and working on other sets they were usually the only one that seemed like they had a clue as to what they were doing – I know I didn’t as a first-time director. David Mellow, who was the cinematographer on "Blind" and two shorts I made, taught me so many things that I am grateful for. I would love to have a DP and an editor to help me achieve what I’m after, God knows I could use the rest, but the money simply hasn’t been there in the past.
With "A Measure of the Sin" you did something very different amongst modern independent and underground filmmakers by actually shooting it on film. What made you decide to shoot it on film instead of going the digital route?
As I already mentioned, I started out shooting on film. This question comes up quite often these days because many people don’t realize film is still being manufactured and shot. Film, for me, is cinema. I could get into a really long discussion/debate on this, but I won’t. The easy answer if that I prefer the way it looks. Too many movies I see now look like music videos, and that’s not what movies are about. It doesn’t matter that a camera shoots 4k and you have a set of $100,000 prime lenses. I shot Measure on a Bolex EBM and Rex 4 with third-generation used glass. Some may say the film looks like shit, but what I used for the picture gave me exactly what I expected and desired. I like grain, I like patina. I see so many of these new cameras breaking down, overheating, losing footage, or whatever and that concerns me. If I’m exposing the film properly, and light is striking the film plane, I’m going to have images that will be around for a century or more, and that pleases me. 16mm has just enough clarity and just enough grit to match what I've been after on most of my films. I love Super-8 very much, which I shot Gracie on. Now to be a little contradictory: I'd really love to find the appropriate story to play with an Arri Alexa.
Besides the possibility of a financial burden, is there more risk or additional stress when shooting on film?
Not really, because I know what to expect. I’ve shot enough bad film to know what the negative can handle in terms of latitude, the sensiometric curve, and all that technical nonsense. I’ve been shooting film for fifteen years and have only had one problem when my camera froze up and jammed because I was in sub-zero temperatures on a music video. When you factor in how much cash these high-end Red cameras and the Alexa cost to rent, the employment of a DIT, and the many hard drives required to store the footage, you could just as easily be shooting on film. I see nice 16mm cameras (35mm sometimes, too) go on Ebay for less than $3,000. There are still labs that will give filmmakers a great deal for processing and transfer with amazing results. I think one big problem the digital era has presented us with is that filmmakers having begun taking takes for granted. When I hear someone just shot eighty hours of footage I want to shake them. That’s ridiculous. That means no one planned and the actors rehearsed in front of a rolling camera. That, to me, is a lack of discipline. Film is like gold and it doesn’t get wasted. Every take is for keeps, and that’s something very precious to me.
I'm sure you don't want to harp on the negative in regards to the film vs. digital debate, but besides the quality and sustainability of the movie and production discipline, what are the other advantages of shooting on film? In your opinion, at least.
What it ultimately comes down to is taste. It wasn’t always chic to be a filmmaker, which is how it sometimes seems today. I think filmmakers were taken much more seriously in the 70’s than they are today because of how difficult of a process it was. 16mm, and Super-8 in particular, have a very distinct look. Good video is good video, and 35mm film is, well, 35mm – it looks amazing. I have seen DSLR’s produce phenomenal quality, but the cameras are tiny. Although it can be a pain in the ass at times (especially with a Bolex), I love the weight of a 400’ magazine moving on a tripod or in my hands. I don’t want to sound cheesy or whatever, but I truly feel like I’m breathing life into the pictures when I turn the camera on and hear gears turning and film moving against the gate. A film camera is nothing more than a very precise machine. I was watching "Raiders of the Lost Ark" the other night and admired the camera moves because for the most part they were all motivated and fairly simple. "Raiders" is, of course, one tiny example. There are so many contraptions people are putting on their cameras to get ridiculous shots they don’t need, which makes the the film feel cheaper, not more expensive. Aside from archival purposes, I suppose there is no real advantage to shooting on film, it’s just a different brush we can reach for to paint with.
Did you have the same kind of anxiety, concerns or general stress with "A Measure of the Sin" that you did when you made "Blind" or did that past experience help you to deal with the stress and any issues that came up during production?
I think each film carries its own unique set of stresses. "Measure", unlike "Blind", was shot in a hundred tiny little pieces. With "Blind" I managed to take a month off of work, we had a very experienced cinematographer and a great editor. With "Measure" it was literally Katie and me doing all of the major positions while working full time jobs. "Measure" also intersected with a point in my life where I went through a great deal of depression. I guess you could say I lost myself and found myself during the making of that film. I don’t want to speak too soon, and I’m hesitant to say it here, but I don’t think any film will be as difficult to make for me as "Measure" was. The content, for one, was emotionally draining, while "Blind" was more of a race to the finish line. "A Measure of the Sin", the film, taught me more about myself as a filmmaker and person than anything else in my life has, and for that I’m remarkably grateful.
Since you shot on film that obviously means there's going to be a difference in post-production work, such as editing. How was the post-production work for "A Measure of the Sin" and about how long did it take?
Once the film gets to the lab they develop the negatives which are then scanned to digital files. A Measure of the Sin was scanned to ProRes 422 HQ files for editing. From that point on the workflow is no different than anyone else editing a film, although I didn’t use a timecode slate or any other new technology, so I had to manually sync takes to the clapperboard mark. The film took a VERY long time to edit because I was working a full time job and going through a tremendous amount of personal struggles. The film was also shot in tiny pieces, so that was a long process as well. I shot the first frame in November of 2007 and the last frame in late April 2012.
Was it difficult to cast for "A Measure of the Sin"?
Aside from young Meredith it wasn’t at all. That was a little tough because some of the content was sexual in nature, so parental consent played into that. I had worked with Katie several times before and she really helped get a good amount of options in front of me. I don’t remember casting being a problem.
Speaking of Katie (Groshong); she has been with you since "Blind" and has worked on a few of your other projects, such as "Gracie". She has not only acted in your movies but she's also been a producer and make-up artist as well. How did you two meet and what' has it been like to be able to find someone that has become a creative partner?
I met Katie back in 2001 when I was auditioning for "Blind". She was rehearsing for a musical or play of some kind, I think. She was there for some other reason entirely. When we first arrived she was singing and goofing off. When the other girls began auditioning I hoped Katie would come in – she never did. So I went to the guy she was there rehearsing with and asked him to send her back when she got a chance. She came back and gave us this really half-hearted audition because she was tired and had just had her wisdom teeth pulled. Katie has this really great charisma about her and she’s a very positive thinker. I called her a few weeks later to tell her she got the part and she didn’t even remember the film she had auditioned for. Katie sort of operates that way. She focuses her energy on what’s directly in front of her and doesn’t really dwell on what-if’s. That mentality is what attracted me to her as far as partners go. What I don’t possess she does, and versa vice, I think, which is where teamwork stems from. Katie has not only become very aware of my likes and dislikes as a director, but also knows exactly what lens I what when I want it while I’m shooting. Those are just a few examples of what she’s able to do, and do in a pinch. Those things are important when we’re the only two left out on a farm in the middle of the night and need a shot.
I'm sure you've been asked this question time and time again but we've got to ask as well: where did the idea for "A Measure of the Sin" come from?
"A Measure of the Sin" is the second story in a trilogy of prose poems written by Kristy Nielsen. I read the story in a literature journal called "Third Coast" and basically cyber-stalked her to convince her I needed to make her story into a film. She obviously obliged and we have become great friends.
The movie has an interesting style that was often described by critics as"'poetic". How did you decide to make the movie in the style that you did as opposed to a more traditional movie? Any specific influence?
I touched on this with my Figgis reference above. More importantly Kristy’s stories dictated the course of action on how I approached the picture and how I wanted to present to story cinematically. My short, "Gracie: The Diary of a Coma Patient" had a very poetic tone as well, so I stayed in the same visual vein in many regards, I believe. Kristy’s writing had a certain rhythm to it that I adhered to in terms of pacing and cadence. I figured I could just take those cues and transplant them to the screen.
When you were making the movie did you have any goals you wanted to achieve with the film? Themes you wanted to cover or any feelings/thoughts you wanted the audience to walk away with when they watched the movie?
The end of the film, which of course I won’t give away, wasn’t in the original story. I had long discussions with Kristy about how I felt like there needed to be a tremendous amount of heartbreak (and potential hatred) for Meredith’s character. There is more to Meredith’s character in a later story by Kristy called The House Still Breathes. Because I wasn’t shooting that story I needed a strong coda, or denouement if you like that word better, for the film. The way I saw it, I had to make Meredith travel into the belly of the beast to find her freedom and herself. I knew ending the film like I did would either move the audience to tears or piss them off. I hear it’s done both, and while I’m more satisfied with a tear-jerk reaction, I’ll settle for anger, just as long as it’s getting a reaction.
Was there something in particular about "A Measure of the Sin" that made you decide to adapt that story into a movie instead of the other two from Kristy?
I actually did end up using the first story, "Arms That Hold Me Back", as well because Meredith’s genesis intrigued me. The third story, "The House Still Breathes", is a great one, but it also summed up Meredith’s parts more than I wanted for the film version. There are some questions about Meredith’s fate that are answered that I preferred to keep ambiguous.
I know that what an author has pictured in their head when it comes to their work will always be different in comparison to a film version. But what did Kristy Nielsen think when she saw "A Measure of the Sin"?
Kristy’s approval was all I really cared about from the very beginning. I’m happy to report she loves the film. She flew to Nashville early on and I showed her the rushes while I was editing. She just sat there and stared at the images shaking her head in disbelief. That was a real dream for me.
"A Measure of the Sin" seemed well received at the Pollygrind Film Festival but how was it received at others? Almost seems like it would be a hard movie to place in a festival with its style and concept.
We were rejected from the first handful and I was discouraged, however, once we started getting into them word began to spread and we held our own with a good, strong run. Eric Stanze, a filmmaker I greatly admire, watched it and loved it. He pushed it hard on FEARnet for us, which was an enormous boon. I went into the project knowing it wasn’t going to be for everyone. The very exciting thing about the festival circuit was how mixed up it all was. I never thought about the picture in terms of genre, so when we were getting into a wide array of festivals (everything from arthouse to underground to bigger International festivals) it was exhilarating because I realized I had made a film that refused to be defined.
You landed a distribution deal with BrinkVision; a company that is quickly becoming one of our favorites due to their willingness to release unique independent films like yours. What made you decide to go with them instead of self-releasing like a lot of indie filmmakers are doing these days?
Self-distribution was something I thought about quite a bit in the beginning, and on some evenings figured may be the only option for people to see it. I flew out to the Arizona Underground Film Festival for our screening and met David Pike there. He is the director of the fest, but he’s also the VP for Brink. He loved the film and told me he wanted to talk about potential distribution. When 2014 rolled around he got in touch with me and we worked it out. I operate heavily on a personal level, and we had been ripped off pretty good on Blind, so I was determined to not have that happen again. David and Brink have been amazing, extremely courteous, and I believe we couldn’t have found a better home for the picture.
In general, what has the experience been like going from coming up with the idea to the movie to seeing receive distribution?
It’s all a bit of a blur, to be truthful. I love the film, but it’s been such a long, hard ride I’m ready to get off and move on to something new!
You participated in the "ABC's of Death" contest and submitted the movie "M Is for Monastery". What was it like participating in that contest and about how long did it take you to make the film?
I shot the film in one day inside and behind my apartment. Of course I didn’t win the contest, but I made a tremendous amount of friends and contacts from all over the world, and that was the reason I wanted to do one. Many of the filmmakers involved in the ABC’s contest that I didn’t know before have become friends and supporters of my work. Indie filmmakers are very good at being cheerleaders for one another’s projects, which is something I really, really embrace and love giving back. The contest was just one more place to meet a bunch of people that are just like me. Sure the cash prize and exposure would have been nice, but Ant Timpson and Time League (the creators) have really done an awesome thing with the contest because it presents a platform for filmmakers to see each other’s work and interact with one another, not to mention get our work seen my thousands of people whether we win or not. With a price of $0 to enter, you can’t beat it.
M is for Monastery from Jeff Wedding on Vimeo.
In your opinion, what do you think is the most important or valuable thing a person can do or have when they set out to make their own movie?
Make the movie you want to make because the chances of its success are the same either way. We made "Blind" with marketability factored in and it did nothing for my career other than it taught me how to be a filmmaker (which is huge, don’t get me wrong), but as far critics and viewers go the film was generally panned, so no one cared whether or not I made another movie. I made both "Gracie" and "Measure" exactly how I saw them and they have both gone on to get some strong positive remarks. If a film is a good one, there will always be an audience for it. The tricky part is finding them. Once you find a strong fan-base (for lack of a better term) it begins to snowball. Again, Eric Stanze was a giant when it came to promoting and helping with our film – people listen to him and they gave it a shot. Confidence and faith are big components in this game as well. I haven’t seen a single red cent from the film yet, and maybe I never will, but it has certainly put me in a pretty good position to go out and make my next one, and that’s all I need to continue. If the film touches one person, just one, then I’m satisfied with the results.
What do you see for yourself on the horizon?
I’m working on a script for a story called American Gothic by Ray Russell I optioned a few months back. I hope to have the screenplay completed soon and will begin looking for some cash so I can go out and buy some 16mm.
Again, we want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview, Jeff. We definitely appreciate it. Is there anything else you would like to add or any last minute plugs you'd like to give?
Please, oh please, continue to support indie cinema and buy not 1, but 2 copies of A Measure of the Sin on DVD – then, go rent it a few times on VOD!!! So much of what we do can only exist if fans and filmmakers support one another, which I try to do with every penny I earn. I can’t tell you how many films I have bought that I had never heard of the film or the filmmaker (and I don’t have much money at all), but I believe in the cause. The only way we are going to be able to make another film is if people buy our last one. It’s that simple. I am so very grateful to everyone that watches the film and pays attention to something I’ve created. That, to me, is success.