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eGuider Exclusive — February 25th, 2010
In the Trenches
An Interview with Director Shane Felux
by Brian Rothe
Shane Felux, the creator of "Star Wars: Revelations" and director of Crackle's new sci-fi action series Trenches, was kind enough to grant eGuiders an exclusive interview. We'll delve into and discuss his craft as a filmmaker, the potential of made-for-web content, and how to overcome production obstacles - budget included. A message to all aspiring filmmakers: Take notes on this one.
First of all, tell us a little bit about your background. How did you get started in film, and how did it evolve into creating content for online audiences?
I was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. I was hooked with the bug at age 8 when I did my first acting job and through the influence of Star Wars. The first in my family to go to college, I went to Southwest Texas State for a degree in Directing / Acting. I then moved to New York where I continued to work in various theater, TV and film projects. I was raised with a “work hard” ethic in which you take pride in what you do. I owe my father for that (he passed away just this past November at 62) and my mother for my creative vision and talent. I strongly believe if "you don't ask, you don't get," and the worst people are going to say is "NO.” There is one yes for every one hundred no’s. I believe in shooting for the stars and seeing what falls down, and doing what they say cannot be done. Anything is possible if you believe in it and can inspire others as well. Now at age 38, I live in Northern Virginia with my wife Dawn Cowings (who is also my writer) and my three sons: Ian (age 8) Brennan (age 5) and Hayden (age 3).
What is Trenches is all about?
Trenches is a made-for-the web sci-fi action series in which two warring sides are locked in a backdrop of a grueling war. Two enemies find themselves abandoned by their own sides and are forced to confront themselves and each other as they must put aside their differences and work together if they’re to survive. Trenches is a popcorn action ride that grabs you by the seat of the pants and leaves you guessing...”what the hell was that?” It's a good time for a free Internet ticket to the show.
Episode 1: Fubar
Trenches had been in the works for quite a while before its release. How did you find the project and what inspired you to take it on?
The project found me, really. I was in the middle of shooting “Pitching Lucas” when a studio executive at Disney/ABC contacted me. Barry Jossen was the guy who discovered me from the press I got on “Revelations,” and he wanted to make a project with me. I always wanted to make a gritty, fast sci-fi war-in- trenches film, and Trenches is what I pitched to him, using the Internet and the phone. The whole thing was presented as a green grass incubator project. It was a stepping stone and a gamble the studio and I both bet on, hoping it would all turn up 7’s.
What challenges were you faced with when creating Trenches?
I faced just about any and all challenges you can think of on Trenches. It was pretty bad at times. I still worked my regular 9-5 job while making Trenches, plus I had a studio looking over my shoulder wanting answers, solutions and updates. The great thing about making a film is that you always know something is going to go wrong, and you succeed by keeping your cool and turning a mistake or problem into a solution. There is always an answer. With the studio and I working together, we conquered them all. Trenches is the most painful, exhausting, thrilling, challenging, special and rewarding project I have done to date. I can’t claim to know the pain and reward of child birth, but I think on this one I came as damn close as a man can get! I am proud of what we did with so little and as a team.
How do you approach content creation when directing for an online audience as opposed to a TV / Film audience? Or, as watching shows like Trenches online is becoming more commonplace, are you finding that you need to take a different approach at all?
I feel made-for-the web involves a very different approach to storytelling than, say, traditional TV or feature film. You are so limited on time for one. You have only 2-6 minute chunks to tell some semblance of a story and have an arc in there plus be interesting enough to hook and retain your audience’s attention. It is simply a click away on the web and you have lost them, while in the meantime they may never even find your gem of a film on the web in the sea of YouTube, male enhancement ads and web noise. It’s an MTV/ADD generation ruling the web from the comfort of work and an armchair, so you have to hit ‘em hard and hit ‘em good. Audiences are very smart and sophisticated. They watch BTS DVDs and tons of web content. They want substance yet a thrill, but in the end there is NO way to please everyone. I feel if the product is professional, strong and well-made, then audiences will watch. Just have to see it and judge. I made Trenches for the web. It’s cut short and fast. I would love to tell who, what, why, when and throw in more character background, but if I had and hour and a half to do it I could, but not in a short web series. There will be those who love it and those who do not. But it was never made or designed for TV or the big screen. We make films for ourselves, but more so that others might enjoy them.
Episode 2: Behind Enemy Lines
While watching shows online is becoming more commonplace, budgets for these shows are still much lower than budgets applied to TV and film. How do you deal with those challenges, while still creating a show with high production values?
The only way it can be done is to have everyone suffer for it and be truly dedicated. The only way I could make Trenches was to put every dime into the picture. It meant that cast and crew would not be paid much. It’s an investment hoping that we all maybe get another shot and maybe eventually grab the brass ring, but in the end we do it because we believe in something and want to make it. At some point something has to break. You can get it cheap, fast or good…in our case pick one. I love a challenge and doing what they say cannot be done, but I tell you it is painful; yet working with a good team like my crew, you call in your favors, roll up your sleeves and get the job done. We all pull together and that is the only way you can do it on small budgets. Trenches was the first time I had an actual budget other than an overdrawn credit card and a second mortgage. It takes three further things to make it work - be creative, cheat it, and throw money at it…you usually have to do a bit of all three but watch that money one…it’s a killer!
In your opinion, what is the potential of online video? Where will it be 5 or 10 years down the road?
It’s here now, really. Where do we go today for all our news, entertainment and even communication? The web. Using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Podcasts… you name it, we are plugged in and listening. I have friends who watch films from their laptop that is connected to their TVs (I am not savvy enough yet on my old projection-tube TV). And with smartphones we are watching films, reading books, news, MPG players…it will just grow and grow. The studios want to know how to capitalize on this…how do you make money? I go back to the product, support and good market and media. If people can find your product and it’s solid, then it will do well and people will watch. Plus, as technology moves forward, more and more of it will make it easier to create media for our audiences. My kids could do their own talk show from my basement and broadcast to millions…it is endless, and I love it.
How does an online audience differ from an audience of TV or film? Do you find that you're more in tune with what people want? Tell us a little bit about your relationship with your audience.
Who knows what people want? I know what I want and like, and tend to make that. But I also try and make what I feel MY audience wants to see. But like I said, there is no pleasing everyone. I know people who hate Indiana Jones, or Star Wars or The Godfather. Everyone has their own taste. With a TV audience you have time to grow and build. They are a bit more patient, I think. Plus there are only so many channels. On the web there are millions and millions of things to watch. How do you connect with an audience with all the noise and still retain their following?
I go and watch a lot of the same things they do, so I connect with those people. I go to Comic Con because it’s awesome. I stood in line for The Phantom Menace. I go to Sci-Fi cons and give talks sharing the knowledge of “I did it and so can you if you want to work hard and make a film you love.” I simply connect through making what I like and believe it’s fun and hope to share it with others.
Episode 3: Field Promotion
What are the benefits of creating content specifically for online viewing?
For an independent filmmaker it is the freedom to distribute to anyone and everyone. To be limitless and have a fast and strong community back you. Do not under-estimate the power of the web and viewers! I love the fact that you can share your work with so many, it’s what storytellers and filmmakers want - to share their work with the world and just maybe even be recognized for it. The web can do that, and it's powerful!
Throughout your experiences with Trenches, what has been the most rewarding part of the production process?
Working with friends is always the most rewarding, but the experience and knowledge that I gained doing this film is irreplaceable. You can only get this experience by doing it and being there. I have to thank the studio and Barry Jossen especially for seeing my potential and taking a chance, even educating me to a system I was naive about (still am to a degree.) The biggest reward is to have it show. For the cast and crew I am responsible for all their hard work, and what they did together with me deserves to be shown. I hope to be rewarded for the three years of work, to go on and live the dream and make film as a career... but even if not, I am greatly rewarded that I got to say ”We made this. It’s done!”
eGuider: Brian Rothe
Director of Content, eGuiders
Recent west coast transplant and production expert.