Filmmakers who have done consistently well in this business will tell you that if you want your project to succeed, you must be its biggest supporter, its biggest champion and its biggest fan from start to finish. There’s no point in dealing with the highs and lows of independent filmmaking if you don’t believe in your work wholeheartedly.
This seems to be the living mantra for Chris Brown and Jill Pixley who together have attended 14 of the 18 festivals that their film, FANNY, ANNIE & DANNY, has been accepted to over the last several months. This may sound extreme, but having been married for ten years, Chris (a writer/director) and Jill (an actor), are certainly no strangers to traveling together, or tag-teaming heated debates about their work at screenings (more on that later).
Fanny, Annie & Danny is a darkly comedic story about three adult siblings who are forced by their mother to reunite for a holiday dinner (check out the trailer below). The film has played everywhere from Daytona Beach to Anchorage, garnering phenomenal reviews and awards in the process (for instance, Chris was awarded the 2010 Emerging Filmmaker Award at the Starz Denver Film Festival and Jill won Best Performance at the San Antonio Film Fest as “Fanny”).
Although the accolades are wonderful (and much deserved), Chris and Jill will be the first to agree that attending these festivals in the flesh is just as beneficial as receiving an award or title. At the end of the day, these festivals are about seeing people experience your work, as well as making lasting personal and professional connections that you wouldn’t otherwise be afforded.
It was at their third fest, the Waterfront Film Festival in Saugatuck, Michigan, where I first connected with this refreshingly down-to-earth power couple. Over the few days that followed, I was fortunate enough to see their fantastic film and get an idea about what it means to fully support your own work.
WILL PRESCOTT: Tell me a little bit about your backgrounds. How did you get started in filmmaking (Chris) and acting (Jill)?
CHRIS BROWN: There’s this ridiculous photo of me taken when I was a little kid. I’m maybe two years old, tops. I can barely walk, and yet I’m carrying this big goofy camera around my neck and straining to look at my shoes through the viewfinder. That pretty much sums it up. I was one of those annoying kids with a camera. When I was 10, I finally commandeered my family’s old Super 8 camera so that I could make my first movie (The Werewolf – thankfully unavailable in any form). After that I more or less never stopped making movies. All through junior high, high school, I just kept making these little films. It’s the only thing I’ve ever I wanted to do. After that, I went to film school and here I am today still making my little films. And the funny thing is, that feeling of magic, that thrill, has never dissipated. Being on the set, working with actors, watching dailies, making a cut, constructing a scene, it’s all still totally thrilling to me. This is probably a sad commentary on my basic lack of development!
JILL PIXLEY: I played a froggie in my 2nd grade play and after that, I was pretty much hooked. I graduated to being the bookworm in 4th grade, did musicals in high school, majored in drama at Stanford, then went off to the Neighborhood Playhouse in NYC to study acting. I got headshots taken, continued studying, pounded the pavement, waited lots of tables and did lots of theatre, industrials, and indie films.
WP: How did you two first meet? What’s your current work/life relationship like?
CB: Jill and I met when she auditioned for my first feature (Daughters) a little over 10 years ago.
JP: Such a cliché, huh?
CB: I’d seen countless actors for this part, and a few of them were really good, talented, intelligent, everything. But when Jill came in, she just blew everyone out of the water. I still have my audition notes. In the “comments” section I wrote, “I love her!! She’s in!” During the shoot, I developed a terrible crush on her, and after the shoot we started dating. We got married a few years later. It makes sense that I would marry an actor since I love actors so much. I mean, as a tribe, I just totally love them, revere them.
Anyway, ever since Daughters, I’ve been dying to work with Jill again. In the intervening years, I directed a second feature (Scared New World) and a bunch of shorts, but the right project just never presented itself.
JP: I produced a short film of Chris’ a few years ago (Battleship Contempkin), but Fanny, Annie & Danny is the first feature we’ve worked on as husband & wife, which was tricky, trickier than I thought it would be.
CB: I wrote Fanny, Annie & Danny for Jill. I wrote it for Jill, Colette (Keen who plays Edie) and George (Killingsworth, who plays Ronnie). These three people are some of my favorite actors and I wanted an excuse to work with them again. I wanted to give them some fun parts to play – I wanted to get the band back together! The funny thing is, when I gave Jill the script, she didn’t want to do it!
JP: I read it and [gulps] was terrified. I didn’t think I could pull it off, even tried to convince Chris to look elsewhere for somebody who could do it better.
CB: Yeah, that’s totally true. I was kind of shocked. All this I can see clearly now in hindsight. This isn’t an easy role, not easy at all. There are so many potential pitfalls when playing a character like Fanny [the character is a developmentally disabled 39-year-old]. Make the wrong few choices and you look like an idiot – and then you take the whole film down with you. Meanwhile, there’s the whole issue of working with your spouse.
JP: It’s one thing to take direction from your ‘director-boss.’ But it’s another thing to take direction from your ‘director-boss-husband.’ The intense nature of the script combined with the husband/wife dynamic presented a few challenges we hadn’t really anticipated.
WP: I bet.
CB: It’s hard to leave your husband/wife hat at the door. We had to figure that out along the way, but thank God Jill agreed to be in the movie, and of course she’s just insanely brilliant in the part, just miraculous. I had so little to do with it, really.
JP: Nice props there, but the truth is Chris had an enormous amount to do with it. This is his film, through and through. His baby. We joke that he’s the mom and I’m the dad. He’s nurtured it through its inception, writing, casting, production, editing, and now during the festival/promotion circuit. He’s indefatigable when it comes to film, and this is such a critical trait in a director on set. As an actor, I want someone on the outside keeping an eye on my performance, somebody I trust so that when I go overboard and get something wrong, he’ll be honest and tell me. That happened during the shoot. There were misfires, acting choices I made that, simply put, were horrible. But I knew I could go there, make those strong choices, because Chris had my back. He lets actors play, make discoveries, make mistakes, try again.
WP: Where did the idea for Fanny, Annie & Danny come from?
CB: That’s always such a good question and so hard to answer. There are certainly some very minor personal bits in Fanny, Annie & Danny, a few overheard lines from friends and family, some borrowed character traits, etc. But the world of this film is a totally invented one.
Every film idea begins with the question, “what’s it like?” What’s it like to be this person? I make the film in order to find out.
The characters in Fanny, Annie & Danny just started nagging at me, tormenting me, making me curious, making me laugh. The funny thing is that at first I didn’t realize that these characters were related to each other. When I discovered that, everything instantly fell into place. I was actually preparing a completely different film from another script I’d written when Fanny and the others sort of grabbed me by the throat and demanded I make their movie. So I obeyed.
WP: How long did it take to finish the script?
CB: It took about 6 months to write the script. For me this is terribly fast. I’m usually much slower. This thing kind of flew out of the laptop. The final shooting script was 118 pages long, which really scared me at first. I thought that was way too long. The finished film is only 82 minutes, and almost nothing was cut.
WP: Besides Jill, what was the rest of the casting process like?
CB: I really love the casting process and take my sweet time when I cast a film. For some reason I can’t fathom, filmmakers too often skimp on this crucial stage of production and put themselves in a corner where they are forced, because of the time constraint, to compromise on the quality (and suitability) of the performers. “Oh god, we only have two weeks before we shoot. Let’s just hire X, even though X is completely inappropriate/weak/whatever.” It’s total insanity.
I must quickly mention that Fanny, Annie & Danny wouldn’t be half the film it is without the contribution of my friend, Jessica Heidt, who introduced me to so many amazing Bay Area actors. An excellent director herself, Jessica is the artistic director at the Climate Theater here in San Francisco. Before that, she was the artistic director at the Magic Theater, so she knows the cream of West Coast acting talent.
WP: Were your actors SAG, or–?
CB: Half and half.
WP: So did you work under a SAG low budget contract?
CB: Yep, the Ultra Low Budget contract. And I have to say, it was so much easier than it used to be a few years ago. The new agreement is so simple. Fatna Sallak-Williams, our local SAG rep, couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful. Everyone was paid the same rate, cast and crew, whether they were SAG or not. There were no tiers.
WP: We love to hear that. But didn’t that affect your budget?
CB: Yeah, it affected it pretty severely, but it’s the only fair way to handle it. You can’t have a dual class system on a set. My time isn’t worth any more than your time. Look, no one got rich working for me. Not by a long shot! People worked on Fanny, Annie & Danny because they loved the project and I was very thankful for their participation.
WP: Did you cast any one actor and then build the rest of the cast based on that? Or was it more, “whoever we can get” kind of thing?
CB: I wrote the film for three of the main actors; I auditioned almost everyone else. And I didn’t stop auditioning until I found the perfect actor for every role. In one case, I rewrote the part to better suit an actor. The role of Mrs. Keller was originally written for a much older woman, but when Jessica introduced me to Anne Darragh, I instantly re-wrote the part for her. And the brilliant Nancy Carlin (who plays the band mom in the film) is also a good friend; I’ve wanted to work with Nancy for years.
WP: Any rehearsal? If so, how much and how long before shooting?
CB: I’m embarrassed to say that there was almost no rehearsal. I don’t recommend this method of working to everyone, but personally I enjoy it. I do, however, shoot lots and lots of takes, which really amounts to an on-camera rehearsal period. This is of course one of the advantages to shooting digitally. If you’ve designed your schedule properly, you can shoot every scene until it’s great, until the magic starts to happen. Back in the days of expensive film, we often had to settle for “good” and move on.
JP: Lots and lots and lots of takes. Some actors love this, some find it challenging. For me, it was both. I always appreciate the opportunity to give it another try and make it ‘better.’ But sometimes, all those takes simply wear you down. And I think that was Chris’ idea. He wanted us to break away from any pre-conceived notions we had of a scene, break away from the way we’d heard ourselves say it over and over. Basically, get out of our own way, quit trying to make it ‘better’ and just deal truthfully with the moment of the scene. Chris also had a very specific shooting aesthetic. He shot many of the scenes as whole units, without any cutaways.
WP: Why is that?
CB: Well, for me, a cut breaks the tension. And I didn’t want that tension to break even for a moment. I didn’t want to give the audience that release.
JP: Kinda scary for the actors, since we had to get through these beefy scenes, beginning to end, without any goofs. And for Chris, because he had to make sure he got it before we moved on, since he’d have absolutely nothing to cut to in post. He was seeing the movie evolve in front of him, right there on the set, instead of covering it from every angle and hoping to make sense of it in post.
WP: Was there any improv on set or did everyone stick to the dialogue?
CB: Amazingly there was very little improv, except for one or two scenes. I’m not a big stickler for script accuracy, though. If an actor comes up with a better way of saying something, I’ll go with it.
WP: Talk a little bit about Colette Keen. Where did you find her and how did she inform the role of Edie?
CB: Colette was in my first feature (Daughters), so we’ve been good friends for a long time now. It’s so funny, audiences are just terrified of Edie. And of course Colette is one of the sweetest people on earth, nothing at all like her. The woman has amazing courage. She committed FULLY to the role, without winks or special pleading. Edie is a force of nature. You either love her or hate her. We’ve had some pretty interesting debates after screenings about this!
WP: After Fanny, in what order were the next siblings (Annie and Danny) cast? Can you talk a little bit about working with Carlye and Jonathan?
CB: I could talk about Carlye and Jonathan for days, because I’m just crazy about both of them. I cast Carlye and Jonathan at about the same time, coincidentally, so both of them were new to my filmmaking family. I have Jessica again to thank for introducing me to Jonathan. Carlye, on the other hand, responded to a call I posted on the good ole interwebs, thank God. As did Nick Frangione (Todd), who’s so damn good it’s scary. Yeah, these three actors are so deeply committed to their work, so talented and so much fun on the set. I can’t wait to work with them again.
WP: Jill- what preparation did you do for the roll of Fanny? Any research? Studying? Does she come from anyone in real life?
JP: Fanny evolved as a curious amalgam of people I studied, people I know, and some stuff I just made up. Since she’s developmentally disabled, I did lots of research on various types of disabilities. But I didn’t want it to be only about her disability. I didn’t want to trivialize or simplify or make her one-dimensional. I never wanted her to fit neatly into a box with a pretty label that people could attach and then simply explain her away. People aren’t that neat. They’re messy and complicated and I’ve never known one who fits neatly into a box. Fanny is no exception.
WP: You can definitely feel the history while watching these characters. Was there anything in particular you all did in prep to create that family dynamic on set?
JP: That’s so good to hear because that clash of family is really at the root of the film. Most of the actors didn’t know each other beforehand (only Colette and I had worked together). Some of us paired off before shooting, went out for coffee, hung out, ran lines, that kind of thing. But I tell you, that family dynamic came together on the set.
WP: I understand you’re also a gifted singer and songwriter. Did you also contribute music to the film?
CB: Yeah, I’m a singer-songwriter by night. I released my first CD a few years ago (Now That You’re Fed). Music and film just go naturally together, the two art forms are such close cousins, really.
Regarding the music in the film, Jill wrote the Fanny song, and I wrote the Christmas songs. It was a defensive act, really; I just didn’t want to have to pay for music/recording rights! So rather than using standard Christmas songs, I just wrote my own. Most of the cast and crew thought that these were traditional Christmas songs.
WP: Can you talk a little bit about Morgan Schmidt-Feng? How did he become attached? What was the working relationship like?
CB: Morgan and I have been friends for years. Rick’s book Feature Filmmaking at Used Car Prices was my bible as a student. Morgan has produced many of my films and our working relationship is great. We’re friends and business partners, in that order. Morgan has a very deep understanding of film and he’s one of the very few people I trust to read a script or view a cut. His notes are always extremely helpful. On the production level, it’s Morgan who puts the package together, who assembles much of the crew, who helps make it all happen. I couldn’t do it without him.
WP: Can you speak on the budget and funding process?
CB: It’s so nice of you to refer to it as a “budget.” By any standard, our budget was very modest. One of the age-old rules of Hollywood filmmaking is that you should never, ever put your own money into a project. Of course I put all of my money into all of my projects. My feeling is that if you’re not willing to risk your own neck, how can you ask other people to risk theirs? We had a group of investors that pitched in sizeable amounts of money and/or in-kind contributions, but most of the money invested was my own. Happily free from children and mortgage, I am able (and apparently willing) to sink every dime I make into my work. This isn’t always an ideal funding model, but if I’m frugal and persistent, it means that I get to make my movie.
If you’re not careful, you can sort of lose yourself in the fund-raising process. I’ve seen so many people raise money for years, make a trailer, shoot for a few days to get some sample scenes on film, do another round of fundraising, rewrite the script for the 100th time, and on and on. Meanwhile they lose all interest in the actual film, they forget what made them excited about the project; all that initial passion and urgency just drains away. At some point, you just have to go make the damn movie!
WP: What was the shooting format?
CB: We shot in DVCPRO HD, a great, robust HD format that, unlike many other flavors of HD, stands up nicely to all sorts of intricate post work.
WP: And where was it shot primarily?
CB: We shot the entire film in and around the San Francisco Bay Area – San Francisco, Berkeley, Hayward, Tracy, San Rafael, Oakland.
WP: Was the post process long? Any pick-ups or re-shoots?
CB: It took me almost a year to edit the film, partly because I’m fussy, and partly because my day job eats up a lot of time.
Regarding pick-ups, I have to confess, there was one scene that I had to shoot three times. I won’t identify it, because I don’t want to bias the jury.
WP: How about the rest of the crew? Any MVPs or standouts worth noting?
CB: We had many standouts, many MVPs. Dan Diaz and his lovely wife Marcy came through like heroes in many ways. Dan and his company Atlas Production Services, provided much of our lighting and grip equipment. Dan did much of our sound recording, and helped out in a number of crucial ways.
Russell Ramos, our location manager, was totally invaluable and lots of fun to work with. I must also acknowledge our gaffer, David Feiten. David is an extremely gifted writer and animator (he’s worked for Disney, among others) who kindly volunteered to be our gaffer.
One of the major MVPs in the whole production was my good friend and film school buddy, André Fenley, who was our sound editor. André has worked at Skywalker Sound since the 1990s and he knows so much about sound. He’s taught me a lot. I mean, the guy has worked on the soundtracks to some of the most sonically brilliant films of the past 15 years — Iron Man, Minority Report, Munich, AI, Fight Club. A lot of viewers have commented on the film’s sound design. All credit goes to André.
WP: And Skywalker Sound did the mix?
WP: Wow. How’d you score that?
CB: Again, all credit goes to André. He showed the film to his colleagues at Skywalker and to my amazement everyone loved it and wanted to support it. Everyone there was just so nice, so generous. We even ran into George at lunch one day. That was a trip. I had to fight the urge to get him to autograph my C3PO action figure.
I’d been up to the ranch before, but I’d never had the pleasure of being there with my own project. It was a total, crazy thrill. We mixed in the Stanley Kubrick mixing room!
WP: You’ve played at a ton of festivals in a short amount of time. What’s been the audience’s response?
CB: Amazing, just amazing. And so personal. That’s the thing that’s surprised us the most. After every screening, people come up to talk to us about their own families, their own brother/sister/mother/father. And in so many cases, it’s obvious that these people don’t have anyone to talk to about this. For us, this is a real privilege. The film has opened the subject up, has given them an opportunity to tell their own stories. It seems to be touching this nerve everywhere we go.
WP: I understand that there have been some heated debates at screenings.
CB: Yeah, it’s gotten dicey at times. An argument broke out at a screening last month about whether the film was a comedy or tragedy. Neither side would budge. I thought it was going to turn bloody! There have been other controversies, but I don’t want to give anything away.
WP: What do you think the film is? Comedy or tragedy?
CB: I’ll never tell!
WP: Can we expect see it on DVD or On Demand anytime soon?
CB: It’s still sort of early in the game, but, yes, we’ll definitely have a DVD release in a few months. And I love the On Demand model too. We’ve been in discussion with a few producers’ reps, too.
WP: What’s your general attitude towards production?
CB: No matter what happens, KEEP SHOOTING! Something weird happens every day. The trick is to keep shooting. No matter what happens, keep shooting, get creative, turn that potential disaster into an opportunity. And whatever happens, you must NEVER cancel a shoot! Planning a single day of shooting is a lot like planning a wedding. There are hundreds of logistical puzzle pieces that need to be considered, weighed, arranged and composed weeks in advance and they all need to fit together in a very specific way. By extension, planning a 25 day shoot is like planning 25 weddings. If you cancel even one day, you can throw your entire shoot into chaos and put the film seriously at risk. I’m almost superstitious about this. I’ve never cancelled a shoot day ever. Fanny, Annie & Danny, was scheduled to be a (for me relatively luxurious) 25 day shoot. We finished it in 23 days.
WP: What’s up next for you two? Next film, next acting gig? You guys ready to retire or just getting started?
CB: Oh geez, we’re just getting started! You know, it’s funny, for as many films as I’ve made, it feels like my first time out every time. I have my next film ready to go, actually. It’s definitely another obsession, something completely different for me and hopefully for the audience. It’s kind of a risky subject. I can’t talk about it, unfortunately. But I’m totally excited about it. We already have one investor who’s come aboard based on Fanny, Annie & Danny, so that’s pretty cool, but we’ll need a few others. It’ll require a slightly larger budget, but I still want to keep the production lean and mean.
WP: Lastly, I noticed you were both wearing some AMAZING sunglasses. Seriously. Where the hell can I buy a pair?
JP: Allynscura.com. A husband-and-wife team who design and collect frames and have the coolest selection around. We’ve been fans for years!
WP: How about that. Another husband-and-wife team. Very fitting!
For more information on Fanny, Annie & Danny, check out the official website as well as the Facebook Page. If you’re an independent filmmaker or know of an independent filmmaker we should interview, email email@example.com for consideration.