MEMBER MONDAYS | Amanda Farmer
is writer and director both for stage and screen & Content Director for Dreamtown Creative - a marketing agency she started with her husband Brent Graham. We spoke with her about all of the wonderful creative endeavors she apart of and what her future plans are!
You mentioned that you have a theater background. How do you think your experience in theater has affected your current work as a filmmaker?
I did high school theater and was never formally trained or anything like that, but in my 20s, I acted in a few community theater shows in San Antonio and really loved the experience of coming together with other creative types and building these crazy worlds. It’s definitely what sparked my interest in doing creative stuff as an adult because I was pretty much just working a corporate job otherwise.
I think there are one or two benefits to having started in theater, like understanding how actors break down a scene or just gaining the confidence to speak in front of a group of people. But I’d be lying if I said starting in theater was a great thing for my filmmaking work. Filmmaking is such a different beast. Both film and theater involve storytelling fundamentals, of course, but film can do so much more. In film, you can choose to focus attention on a subtle detail, use camerawork to affect the emotion of a scene, transport a character into a different location and back in an instant – there is so much freedom, which means making a ton of decisions and having to really get a lot of things right just so the story comes across.
How did you first make the transition from theater to film? And why?
Part of the magic of theater is that it’s a fleeting experience – after the show closes, you’re just left with your memories of it. After putting everything I had into a few theater productions, I started to want something I could hold onto for longer. Film is something you can “keep” in a way that you can’t a stage show.
So I was really naive and green, but I decided to start a narrative web series that would take place in different locations around San Antonio – something I could keep after all that hard work. My brother and I borrowed my uncle’s camera, ran some auditions, and mustered out a couple of episodes. They were really terrible but so much fun to create. It took so many people coming together and offering help – both experienced people and a few who just wanted to do something creative – and we formed some great friendships. That’s how I learned to edit video, but much more importantly, it’s how I learned how much I really didn’t know.
Around that time I met my husband and creative partner, Brent Graham, who had more of a formal production background as a commercial director in SA. We both just love storytelling and pretty much from day one started developing ideas we thought were meaningful or funny.
Your screenplay, "Sadik Goes Viral," was a finalist in the Drama Feature category of the 2013 Austin Screenplay Competition at the Austin Film Festival. In addition, you're a reader for a big screenplay festival every year. What advice would you give to someone who has a screenplay they'd like to enter into competitions? Is there anything specific you feel like judges often look for? What are some common mistakes writers often make?
Oh boy. Judging a script is really subjective, which is why they always have more than one reader do it. So you’d probably get a few different answers from different people, and they’d all be right.
But personally, I look for a few things. The baseline is seeing that the writer understands story structure and the basics of screenwriting. I tend to give preference to scripts that you can tell are really well thought-out from a bunch of angles. You can see it when a writer spends creative energy on answering questions like: Why is it interesting/unexpected to see this particular character in this particular situation? What active decisions is the character making that improve or worsen their situation? How have they changed (or experienced consequences for not changing) by the end? What role do each of the side characters play in advancing the plot?
As far as mistakes I see, I think writers sometimes either focus so much on world building/plot that their main character is just kind of a generic body plopped into the story – or – they give a really interesting character a really inactive story. You need to give equal attention to both aspects. For example, I would say don’t just write a story about a guy trying to survive a zombie outbreak. Write a story about a guy who’s been sleepwalking through life suddenly realizing what matters and hatching a plan to rescue his loved ones... in the middle of a zombie outbreak, like Shaun of the Dead.
They say writing is rewriting, and after struggling through a few scripts of my own I realized that's true. You probably shouldn’t submit your first draft. If you haven’t done a page-one rewrite yet, your best work is still to come. And importantly, don’t take rejection as a sign that you’re terrible and should give up – the reality may just be that you submitted one draft earlier than the next person.
Filmmakers can often find themselves wearing a lot of different hats in small productions. What is the craziest thing you've ever done for a production? What's your favorite hat to wear?
This is a funny question because I’m sure we can all relate.
The craziest thing I ended up doing was actually on a TLC reality show. I was hired as a production coordinator for this show about four guys from royal bloodlines looking for love in Austin, a la Coming To America. I did regular production coordinator stuff for a couple of days, but the show was on a tight budget and pretty chaotic. Somebody asked me to run a wardrobe errand, and next thing I knew, I was the de facto wardrobe person.
I ended up doing things I had absolutely no business doing, like attempting to adhere a believable beard to an English lord, schlepping centuries-old Medici robes around town in the trunk of my car, all the way to actually selecting the royal wardrobe for the final “royal reveal” episode. I was so relieved when that project wrapped. Reality television was too stressful for me.
I enjoy most of the other hats I’ve worn on smaller productions – I learned how to run audio for our recent short and really enjoyed being in a hands-on crew role. I think I’m more suited for production audio than beard-gluing.
What is it like to be in charge behind the scenes (as writer, director, producer etc.) while also starring in a production? Is there a balance you need to strike? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages?
A lot of people do that really well, where for me it was more of a “lesson learned” because I didn’t feel like I did my best work on either side.
I think if I were to attempt that again, I’d do a ton of pre-production homework and try to really clearly communicate my goals and vision to the crew. I might even lean on a strong assistant director or co-director on set who could take the lead for the technical side of things. That way, I could be more in the moment and focus on my performance and the other actors.
Your short, Koyspiracy! is in post-production right now. How did production go? What are your plans for Koyspiracy!?
Production was a blast and went really smoothly – mostly because my husband and I did a lot of previsualization and planning ahead of time. We were lucky enough to work with two local actors we love and admire (Ronald Short and KarieAnn Randol) who brought a lot of life to the roles. Apart from that, we had a killer gaffer (Chad Brewer from No85 Film Rentals) and fantastic PA (Sergio Garcia).
Brent and I wore the rest of the hats between us, both to keep costs low and because we just love digging in to all aspects of the project. He’s kind of a real-life MacGyver, so he DIYed everything from a blood squib to a PVC snorricam to a wooden scaffolding so we could have a “ninja” drop down from the ceiling. Low-budget filmmaking at its best.
“I don't know if there's anywhere else in Austin that is as affordable, flexible, and hands-on in supporting small filmmakers as Motion Media Arts Center. "
Our plans are, first and foremost, to finish it – we can get really in our heads about things so just completing a project always feels like a victory. Then, we’ll submit it to some film festivals. It’s just a short film, so we’re not too grandiose about its prospects – just happy to be creating right now.
In addition to your filmmaking endeavors, you and your husband own a marketing agency, Dreamtown Creative. What made you decide to start your own business and what has the process taught you?
I was working as communications manager for a tech company and found myself drained at the end of each day and unable to really devote energy to creative pursuits. The corporate world can be crazy, and it just wasn’t what I wanted for my life. I knew if I set out on my own, I could at least set my own schedule. Brent was in a similar situation, so I quit my job first, and after a few months, he jumped as well.
We have been really lucky to have a full client list since pretty early on, so the biggest lesson I’ve had to learn is not to fear turning down “work-work” in order to schedule time to make films. That was actually a hard thing for me because you don’t want to be ungrateful to the Universe for bringing work your way. But I’ve had to find a balance where I can pay the bills and save a little for retirement while still having time to do film, which makes me happy.
How has being a member of Austin Cinemaker Space and utilizing the Motion Media Arts Center facility helped you as a creative?
Having unlimited access to affordable studio space has been a huge help for us. The short we're working on features a few scenes that take place in "infinite blackness," and filming in the facility's black studio made it easy to achieve that effect. Plus, the staff is so helpful that shooting there is always a great experience -- you guys are quick to give us a hand loading in or help us find an extra extension cord or a few pieces of gaff tape or whatever we need. I don't know if there's anywhere else in Austin that is as affordable, flexible, and hands-on in supporting small filmmakers as Motion Media Arts Center. I want to find more excuses to go there.
Although you've already done so much, you mentioned you think the best of your filmmaking days are still ahead of you. What are some of your goals for the next year? Any future projects you have up your sleeve?
Our overall goal is to get over the busyness and fear and just focus on making stuff. We really want to keep the creative energy flowing. For us, that looks like writing and producing another short film and writing 1-2 others in the next six months. We might tackle writing another feature at some point because ideally we’d like to produce one in the next couple of years.
Apart from that, we’ll be crewing on two projects for Ronald with Short Pictures Independent and doing whatever we can to help other local productions. We’re always open to reading other people’s scripts and giving feedback just to be another set of eyes. We love Austin, and we’re here to help in any small way we can.
INTERVIEW BY: Mia Garza
MEMBER MONDAYS is a weekly interview series highlighting current members & alumni of the Austin School of Film + Austin Cinemaker Space community! Each week, we’ll be featuring one of our incredibly eclectic community members and take a deep dive into their work. Gaining an insight into what makes them, them.